Lies, Spies and Politics: The Incredible Evolution of the Benghazi “Talking Points” Narrative–Part II

Some enterprising jounalist should go back and prepare a compilation that lists the different versions of what happened to the talking points, citing all that is known about and by each source speaking on background, or on the record, and the publication in which the version appeared.

An example of the misleading information being supplied to Congress and to the public is provided by the following excerpt from the Christian Sciene Monitor regarding meetings today (November 27) of Susan Rice and CIA Acting Director Michael Morell with Republican Senators :

…Republican senators said the meeting with Rice and Morell left them with more concerns than before. In a statement McCain, Graham and Ayotte said there was now more confusion about who had made changes in the talking points before they were given to Rice.

Morell told the senators during the meeting that the FBI had removed references to al Qaeda from the talking points “and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation” of the attack on the U.S. mission, the statement by McCain, Graham and Ayotte said.

“However, at approximately 4:00 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why,” the statement said (emphasis added).

The initial draft of the talking points written by the CIA referred to “attacks” carried out by “extremists with ties to al Qaeda.” However by the time Rice received them, “attacks” had changed to “demonstrations” and “with ties to al Qaeda” had been deleted, multiple U.S. sources have said.

A U.S. intelligence official said the CIA changed the reference to al Qaeda for “several valid intelligence and investigatory reasons.”

Among the reasons cited were that “the information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators; finally, no one wanted to prejudice a criminal investigation in its earliest stages.”

U.S. intelligence officials have denied that there was any intent to misinform. The White House has denied making the edits in the talking points, and had no further comment on the subject after the meeting.

–Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell (Reuters),”Controversy over Susan Rice’s Benghazi comments continues,” Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 2012.

Conclusions

The Observer’s conclusion, having followed the matter of the talking points rather closely, is that the intelligence agencies and the White House have been blowing smoke and using mirrors to hopelessly confuse the public with deliberately misleading or false versions given to different reporters by different background sources since the Benghazi talking points became a hot issue.

On the issue of whether Susan Rice misrepresented the facts known by the administration and by her regarding the nature of the attacks on the Benghazi mission and annex, it appears clear that she was handed deliberately misleading unclassified talking points that downplayed the al-Qaeda ties of the attackers, that she from her own intelligence briefings must have been aware of these ties, and that she deliberately and misleadingly stressed the spontaneous nature of the attacks and the fact they were carried out by individuals or groups of armed individuals (and not, by inference, by organizaed militias or jihadist forces).

She may have been trying, inartfully, to conceal the classified intelligence she had been instructed not to reveal.

But is is clear that she was sent to the five Sunday morning talk shows by the White House, for what we must assume was a particular purpose. That purpose it appears, until evidence to the contrary is made public, was to defuse the explosive issue of the failures at Benghazi and to minimize the impact of the Benghazi fiasco on President Obama’s prospects in the election. One way to do this was to downplay the al-Qaeda and terrorist ties of the attackers. In addition, an important goal must have been to draw attention away from the CIA black operation that was being carried out in Benghazi.

In saying what she said on the Sunday talk shows, there now can be little doubt that she was doing exactly what President Obama wanted her to do. She was and is a loyal, perhaps the closest and most loyal, foreign policy aide to President Obama, having been his primary advisor on foreign policy during the 2008 campaign, and by all reports maintaining a very close relationship with him since.

It seems clear that what Susan Rice said on the Sunday morning talk shows was exactly what President Obama and his campaign wanted her to say.

For that, she deserves credit, and if nominated to be Secretary of State one of her greatest qualifications will be that she has an extremely close relationship with the president, who can count on her to precisely carry out his instructions.

So, it appears that Obama and the Obama campaign did downplay the terrorism and al-Qaeda ties of those who attacked the mission and annex in Benghazi, and that they did so in part for quite natural political reasons, and also to distract attention from the true nature of the CIA’s activities in Benghazi.

So what?

Obama has now been reelected. So, where do we go from here?

It is important that all of the facts regarding the Benghazi attacks be made public as soon as possible, and not relegated to the eventual reports on what happened at Benghazi, which will undoubtedly be wrapped in legalese and, if the evolution of the Benghazi talking points offers any clue, will artfully obfuscate the most important points in disupute.

It is also important that President Obama be held accountable for any misrepresentations to the American people he may be responsible for. He needs to stop being so clever, and as David Ignatius has recommended in an illuminating article on “the Covert Commander in Chief”, come out from the shadows and lead the nation in the open, in the sunlight.

See David Ignatius, “The covert commander in chief,” Washington Post, September 10, 2011.

See also The Trenchant Observer, “U.S. Covert Action in Syria?—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #40 (May 22),” May 22, 2012.

We must assume that Obama has been directing the Benghazi CIA operation, and the administration’s response to the attacks on the Benghazi mission and annex on September 11. If this assumption is correct, Susan Rice’s appearances on September 16 on the Sunday talk shows can be viewed as the successful execution of the President’s instructions, to achieve his objectives.

The closing paragraphs of David Ignatius’ op-ed piece lay out the challenge which now faces the president if he is to have a successful second term:

Perhaps Obama’s comfort level with his intelligence role helps explain why he has done other parts of the job less well. He likes making decisions in private, where he has the undiluted authority of the commander in chief. He likes information, as raw and pertinent as possible, and he gets impatient listening to windy political debates. He likes action, especially when he doesn’t leave fingerprints.

What this president dislikes — and does poorly — is political bargaining. He’s as bad a dealmaker as, let’s say, George Smiley would be. If the rote political parts of his job sometimes seem uninteresting to him, maybe that’s because they seem trivial compared to the secret activities that he directs each morning. If only economic policy could be executed as coolly and cleanly as a Predator shot.

There is a seduction to the secret world, which for generations has charmed presidents and their advisers. It’s easier pulling the levers in the dark, playing the keys of what a CIA official once called the “mighty Wurlitzer” of covert action. Politics is a much messier process — out in the open, making deals with bullies and blowhards. But that’s the part of the job that Obama must learn to master if he wants another term.

On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, America is lucky to have a president who is adept at intelligence. But it needs, as well, a leader who can take the country out of the shadows and into the light.

Beyond the politics of the 2012 presidential campaign, when we get to the bottom of the Benghazi affair what we are likely to find is a covert operation that involved supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, and which for some as yet unknown reason became the object of vicious armed attacks by one or more militias or other groups with ties to al Qaeda.  Tragically, the Benghazi fiasco resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

There is much to be learned from the multiple failures which occurred in Benghazi. To get to the bottom of things, however, President Obama and his admnistration need to stop blowing smoke and using mirrors in providing spurious information to reporters and the American people.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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