The Ben Rhodes Email: Fox's New (False) Benghazi Attack

Susan RiceFox News is distorting a memo used to prepare an Obama administration official for media appearances to falsely suggest that the administration was lying about the Benghazi attacks for political gain.

On September 16, 2012, five days after the September 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday political talk shows and suggested that the terror attacks had grown out of spontaneous protests. At the time, there were riots at American facilities across the Muslim world, inspired by an anti-Islam video. Since then, conservatives led by Fox News have claimed that Rice's comments on the Sunday shows were part of a deliberate effort to deceive the American people about the cause of the attacks, to bolster President Obama's re-election campaign. This effort has often involved distorting the CIA-approved talking points that Rice used to prepare for the interviews.

On April 29, Fox renewed these claims, seizing on a newly released  September 14, 2012 email from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes to other key national security aides -- which details goals for the Sunday interviews and a series of potential questions and answers -- that was released under public records law by the conservative group Judicial Watch. Over on-screen text which claimed “New Benghazi Documents Lead Directly To The White House,” Fox correspondent Catherine Herridge highlighted that according to the email, one of the goals for Rice's appearances was “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video and not a broader failure of policy.” She concluded that Fox had asked the White House “for comment on the Rhodes email, and what intelligence led to that conclusion that somehow an Internet video was responsible for the protests in Benghazi.”

But contrary to Herridge's contention, the Rhodes email reveals nothing new. It is consistent with other intelligence briefings circulating at the time which have already been well-documented, and discusses a wide range of issues, not just Benghazi -- in fact, the specific comment Fox highlighted was an accurate depiction of the multiple riots occurring in the region at the time. When the email was sent, there were global anti-American protests in response to the video, often violent, many of which targeted U.S. diplomatic security posts, including in Egypt, Indonesia, Qatar, Pakistan, Sudan, Bangladesh, and Yemen.

In his twenty paragraph email advising Rice on her upcoming TV appearances, Rhodes made only two direct references to Benghazi -- first highlighting support from the Libyan government for U.S. diplomatic efforts in the country, and later debunking the false claim that there was any “actionable intelligence” prior to the attack on the facility in Benghazi and stating that “the currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex.” That language is identical to the initial draft of the separate set of CIA talking points that were crafted by CIA analysts earlier that day, suggesting that Rhodes had seen that early document and was using it to ensure the administration's statements were consistent with the intelligence community's conclusions.

A bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released in January 2014 stated that "[s]ome intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video." Indeed, former CIA acting director Mike Morrell has testified that the CIA chief of station in Libya believed at the time that the video might have motivated the attackers. The Senate report also determined that “there were no efforts by the White House or any other Executive Branch entities to 'cover-up' facts or make alterations for political purposes” -- a reality that Fox has refused to accept.

UPDATE: A report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service published days after the attacks in Benghazi details how “Muslims in a number of countries have responded in recent days with anger at the United States that many observers describe as a response to a privately produced film circulating on the Internet that denigrates Islam and the prophet Mohammed.” According to the report, as of September 14, 2012, when Rhodes' email was sent, such protests - often violent and focused on U.S. diplomatic facilities -- had occurred in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt,  Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.Map