When ABC News Claimed It Had “Obtained” The Benghazi Emails

KarlABC News is now claiming that its Benghazi “exclusive” was based on summaries of emails between administration aides, not the emails themselves -- an assertion belied by their earlier reports.

CNN's Jake Tapper reported on May 14 that he had obtained an email sent by White House aide Ben Rhodes that “differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations,” including ABC's Karl. According to Tapper, previous accounts of the email made it “appear that the White House was 'more interested in the State Department's desire to remove mentions of specific terrorist groups and warnings about these groups so as to not bring criticism to the State Department than Rhodes' email actually stated.'”

The conservative media has spent months obsessing over the Benghazi talking points that administration officials were discussing in those emails. According to right-wing conspiracy, the administration edited the talking points to downplay the role of terrorism in the attack in order to benefit the Obama reelection campaign. In fact, as then-CIA director David Petraeus noted, the talking points were changed to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators -- an account bolstered by the full version of the Rhodes email. 

ABC News has responded by claiming their original reporting was based on summaries of the emails, not the emails themselves. In a statement to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, an ABC spokesperson wrote: “Assuming the email cited by Jake Tapper is accurate, it is consistent with the summary quoted by Jon Karl.” Karl himself has responded that rather than reviewing the emails themselves, he actually had been “quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes.” He added that "[t]he source was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails," suggesting that his original report was based solely on that source's summaries, and denied that the summaries provided an inaccurate take on the original email.

But ABC News and Karl himself have repeatedly suggested he had obtained the actual emails, not summaries of emails from Rhodes and others in the administration.

In the third paragraph of his May 10 ABCNews.com article, Karl reported that "White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department" (emphasis added). Three paragraphs later, he wrote that "Summaries of White House and State Department emails -- some of which were first published by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard -- show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points" (emphasis added). That was the sole reference to “summaries” in the online article. Instead, he repeatedly produced quotes from what he described as “emails,” suggesting that he had personally reviewed the original documents.

Karl and his ABC News colleagues also repeatedly suggested on-air that he had obtained the actual emails.

Reporting on ABC's Good Morning America on May 10, Karl neither said he had personally reviewed the emails, nor said he had reviewed summaries. Instead, he said he had “had emails read to me,” then provided what he described as a direct quote from a State Department spokeswoman's email.

Karl likewise cited “an email obtained by ABC” on the May 10 edition of ABC's World News and read the comments from the State Department spokeswoman as a “quote” from that email. (via Nexis).

Similarly, ABC's Martha Raddatz referred to Karl having “exclusively obtained the emails” on the May 12 edition of This Week, while Reena Ninan referenced “emails exclusively unearthed” by Karl on the May 11 World News.

It seems reasonable for readers to assume that when, for instance, a reporter publishes a direct quote attributed to a White House staffer from what is described as “an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m.,” the reporter is producing the actual words the aide wrote. Now ABC News is claiming that that is not the case.

The following are quotes from Karl's online report, emphases added:

In an email to officials at the White House and the intelligence agencies, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland took issue with including that information because it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?  Concerned ...”

In response, an NSC staffer coordinating the review of the talking points wrote back to Nuland, “The FBI did not have major concerns with the points and offered only a couple minor suggestions.”

“These changes don't resolve all of my issues or those of my buildings leadership,” Nuland wrote.

In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. -- three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows - Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department's concerns needed to be addressed.

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don't want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”