ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl is helping to promote a dishonest narrative regarding why then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus expressed disapproval for a set of talking points written in response to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Karl's reporting on the issue has ignored the central reason Petraeus said that he didn't like the talking points: he thought they didn't do enough to connect the attacks to demonstrations in Cairo that were triggered by an anti-Islam video. Since right-wing media and Republicans in Congress have spent months accusing the Obama administration of politically-motivated lying for stating that there was a link between the attacks and the video, this point is crucial.
According to CBS News, in a September 15 email, Petraeus wrote that “he doesn't like the talking points and he would 'just assume they not use them... This is not what [Rep.] Ruppersberger asked for. We couldn't even mention the Cairo warning. But it's their call.'”
The “Cairo warning” Petraeus mentioned appears to refer to the following sentence that CBS News reported was added to the original talking points but subsequently removed:
On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy [in Cairo] and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy."
As has been extensively reported, the September demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, were part of a series of global riots and protests in Muslim countries that came in response to increasing awareness of the anti-Islam video. In the days and weeks following the attack, President Obama both referred to the attacks as an “act of terror” and offered criticism of that video for “spark[ing] outrage through the Muslim world.”
It was not unreasonable for Petraeus and Obama to cite a link between the attacks and the video - according to the New York Times, the Benghazi attackers told bystanders that “that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video.” In fact, the original set of talking points prepared by the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis stated that the attacks “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”
But in reporting on the same Petraeus email, Karl has left out Petraeus' stated reason for disliking the talking points and in one case allowed his interviewer to suggest that Petraeus actually opposed linking the attacks to the video.
Reporting on the Petraeus email, Karl told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that Petraeus “didn't like these talking points” and said that he “would just as soon not use them.” O'Reilly responded that this proved his contention that Petraeus “didn't sign off on this at all” and that it was the White House and State Department “who made these edits and misled the world into thinking it could have been an anti-Islamic video put out by some nut in the USA.” From the May 10 edition of O'Reilly's program:
KARL: Well -- well the CIA did sign off at the end on what -- on those talking points that were given to Susan Rice.
O'REILLY: Petraeus signed off on that?
KARL: Well -- well that's an interesting point. I've also obtained an e-mail from Petraeus who, of course, was still the CIA director at the time.
KARL: And he was concerned that the things had been edited down to the point of uselessness.
O'REILLY: I don't think Petraeus signed off on that with all due respect Mr. Karl. I don't think he signed off on it.
KARL: I have a direct quote from Petraeus's e-mail sent on February 15th -- this is the day before Susan Rice went on the shows. He said, “I would just as soon not use them.” He didn't like these talking points.
O'REILLY: That's right. And now on September you said February. That was September 15th.
KARL: I'm sorry.
O'REILLY: That's all right. That's all right.
So let's be clear. David Petraeus the head of the CIA he didn't sign off on this at all. It was the White House and the State Department working together, all right --
O'REILLY: -- who made these edits and misled the world into thinking it could have been an anti-Islamic video put out by some nut in the USA.
Karl also mentioned the email during a May 12 appearance on ABC's This Week, and again did not mention why Petraeus had said he didn't like the talking points:
KARL: When Petraeus finally saw the final version of the talking points, this is the Saturday afternoon before Susan Rice's appearances on the Sunday shows, he looked at these and says they're essentially useless, and, direct quote from his email, he says “I would just as soon not use them, but it's their call,” meaning the White House's call.