Deliberate ambiguity: Talking points, and what Susan Rice said on September 16 talk shows

Rereading the transcripts of Susan Rice’s statements on Benghazi on all five Sunday talk shows on September 16, brings home a critically important point: Isn’t this an absolutely crazy way to use what little focused interview time available each Sunday–to have an administration official or other newsmaker repeat exactly the same talking points on five different programs?

On the other hand, a few revealing nuances did emerge.


Washington Wire, “Flashback: What Susan Rice Said About Benghazi,” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012.

Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay, Transcripts show changes in Obama aides’ accounts on Libya attack”,” McClatchy Newspapers, October 19, 2012 (last updated October 21, 2012), published in The Sacramento Bee, November 16, 2012.

The Washington Wire story from the Wall Street Journal has excerpts from each program, and very useful links to the full transcripts of each.

The Talking Points

We learned from David Petraeus’ testimony on Capitol Hill today that the original talking points prepared by the CIA referred by name to Al Queda affiliates. This was watered down in an inter-agency review process–to deliberately ambiguous phrasing which Susan Rice more or less faithfully repeated on the five talk shows.

The original CIA talking points reportedly stated that Al Qaeda in Northern Africa and Ansar al-Sharia had been behind the attacks in Benghazi.

The claim that they were deleted from the revised talking points given to Susan Rice so as to not to tip off these groups that the CIA was on their trail is ludicrous. Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attacks. It is doubtful that Al Qaeda in North Africa was parsing the nuances of the Sunday talk shows in Washington for clues as to whether or not the U.S. was on their trail. Obviously, they had to assume that it was.

[The original draft CIA talking points will be inserted here when they become available.]

The revised CIA talking points, after changes made in the inter-agency review process, stated the following according to a readout by Senator Diane Feinstein today following Petraeus’ testimony:

1. The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the United States Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against United States diplomatic posts in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.

2. There are indications extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.

3. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.

4. The investigation is ongoing and the United States government is working with Libyan authorities to bring justice to those responsible for the deaths of United States citizens.

The Sunday Talk Shows on September 16

Several important quotes from the transcripts shed further light on what Susan Rice and the Administration were doing.

NBC — Meet the Press

First, the transcript from Meet the Press with David Gregory includes the following:

MS. RICE: Well, David, we can’t predict with any certainty. But let’s remember what has transpired over the last several days. This is a response to a hateful and offensive video that was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Obviously, our view is that there is absolutely no excuse for violence and that– what has happened is condemnable, but this is a– a spontaneous reaction to a video, and it’s not dissimilar but, perhaps, on a slightly larger scale than what we have seen in the past with The Satanic Verses with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Now, the United States has made very clear and the president has been very plain that our top priority is the protection of American personnel in our facilities and bringing to justice those who…

GREGORY: All right.

MS. RICE: …attacked our facility in Benghazi…

GREGORY: Well, let’s talk– talk about– well, you talked about this as spontaneous. Can you say definitively that the attacks on– on our consulate in Libya that killed ambassador Stevens and others there security personnel, that was spontaneous, was it a planned attack? Was there a terrorist element to it?

MS. RICE: Well, let us– let me tell you the– the best information we have at present. First of all, there’s an FBI investigation which is ongoing. And we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of– of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video. What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons which unfortunately are readily available in post revolutionary Libya. And it escalated into a much more violent episode. Obviously, that’s– that’s our best judgment now. We’ll await the results of the investigation. And the president has been very clear–we’ll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.

GREGORY: Was there a failure here that this administration is responsible for, whether it’s an intelligence failure, a failure to see this coming, or a failure to adequately protect U.S. embassies and installations from a spontaneous kind of reaction like this?

MS. RICE: David, I don’t think so. First of all we had no actionable intelligence to suggest that– that any attack on our facility in Benghazi was imminent…

GREGORY: The president and the secretary of state have talked about a mob mentality. That’s my words, not their words, but they talked about the– the tyranny of mobs operating in this part of the world. Here’s the reality, if you look at foreign aid–U.S. direct foreign aid to the two countries involved here, in Libya and Egypt, this is what you’d see: two hundred million since 2011 to Libya, over a billion a year to Egypt and yet Americans are seeing these kinds of protests and attacks on our own diplomats. Would– what do you say to members of congress who are now weighing whether to suspend our aid to these countries if this is the response that America gets?

MS. RICE: Well, first of all, David, let’s put this in perspective. As I said, this is a response to a– a very offensive video. It’s not the first time that American facilities have come under attack in the Middle East, going back to 1982 in– in Beirut, going back to the Khobar Towers in– in Saudi Arabia, or even the attack on our embassy in 2008 in Yemen.

GREGORY: We are in the middle of a heated presidential campaign, there are different foreign policy visions. That’s why we wanted to dedicate the hour to this today to really understand these different views. Mitt Romney spoke out this week, he criticized the administration, talked about whether the United States was apologizing for some of the initial response to this. These were his comments this week.

(Videotape; Wednesday)

MR. MITT ROMNEY: The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions. I think it’s a– a– a terrible course to– for America to– to stand in apology for our values.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: Our embassies did not stand up for speech– free speech in this initial response to this violence. And the Republican charge is that it’s weakness on the part of this administration that invites this kind of chaos, that the administration has not been tough enough on radical extremists that are beginning to take root in these countries. How do you respond to that?

MS. RICE: First of all, I think the American people and certainly our diplomats and– and development experts who are putting their lives on the line around the world every day expect from our leadership unity in times of challenge and strong, steady, steadfast leadership of the sort that President Obama has been providing. With respect to this, I think, vacuous charge of weakness, let’s– lets recall, I think, the American people fully understand that this is an administration led by a president who said when he ran for office that he would take the fight to al Qaeda. We have decimated al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is dead. He said we would end the war responsibly in Iraq. We’ve done that. He has restored relationships around the world. I spend every day up at the United Nations where I have to interact with 192 other countries. I know how well the United States is viewed. I know that our standing is much improved and it’s translated into important support for strong American positions, for example with sanctions against Iran.

GREGORY: Was it inappropriate for Governor Romney to level the criticism he leveled?

MS. RICE: I’m not going to get into politics, David. That’s not my role in this job. But I think the American people welcome and appreciate strong, steady, unified leadership, bipartisan in times of challenge. And for those men and women in our diplomatic service, including those we tragically lost, they look to our leadership to be unified and responsible.

ABC News — This Week

Second, from ABC’s This Week, we have the following exchange:

TAPPER: So, first of all, what is the latest you can tell us on who these attackers were at the embassy or at the consulate in Benghazi? We’re hearing that the Libyans have arrested people. They’re saying that some people involved were from outside the country, that there might have even been Al Qaida ties. What’s the latest information?

RICE: Well, Jake, first of all, it’s important to know that there’s an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.

But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.

We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
We’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that’s the best information we have at present.

TAPPER: Look at this map, if you would. There have been protests around the world over the last several days. And President Obama pledged to repair America’s relationships with the Muslim world. Why does the U.S. seem so impotent? And why is the U.S. even less popular today in some of these Muslim and Arab countries than it was four years ago?

RICE: Jake, we’re not impotent. We’re not even less popular, to challenge that assessment. I don’t know on what basis you make that judgment. But let me — let me point…

TAPPER: It just seems that the U.S. government is powerless as this — as this maelstrom erupts.

RICE: It’s actually the opposite. First of all, let’s be clear about what transpired here. What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region…

TAPPER: Tunisia, Khartoum…

RICE: … was a result — a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting. We have also been very clear in saying that there is no excuse for violence, there is — that we have condemned it in the strongest possible terms (emphasis added)

CBS — Face the Nation

3. From CBS’ Face the Nation, we have the following exchange:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Today on FACE THE NATION on the anniversary of 9/11, an attack in Libya takes the life of our ambassador there and three other Americans. And a new attack in Afghanistan today leaves four U.S. service members dead.

As the anti-American protests over a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film spread across the Arab world from Africa to Afghanistan to Australia. Here at home, big questions remain about the safety of U.S. personnel overseas. And how all this will affect Campaign 2012. We will cover it all from all sides with the President of Libya’s General National Congress Mohamed Yousef Magariaf; U.N. ambassador Susan Rice; and Republican Senator John McCain.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Was this a long-planned attack, as far as you know? Or what– what do you know about that?

MOHAMED YOUSEF EL-MAGARIAF: The way these perpetrators acted and moved, I think we– and they’re choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, I think we have no– this leaves us with no doubt that this has preplanned, determined– predetermined.

BOB SCHIEFFER: And you believe that this was the work of al Qaeda and you believe that it was led by foreigners. Is that– is that what you are telling us?

MOHAMED YOUSEF EL-MAGARIAF: It was planned– definitely, it was planned by foreigners, by people who– who entered the country a few months ago, and they were planning this criminal act since their– since their arrival.

RICE: …But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy–


SUSAN RICE: –sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that– in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.

BOB SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with him that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?

SUSAN RICE: We do not– we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al Qaeda had some part in this?

SUSAN RICE: Well, we’ll have to find out that out. I mean I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine (emphasis added).


1. Susan Rice as a member of the President’s cabinet presumably had access to his intelligence briefings, and presumably was aware from these classified briefings that the CIA believed Al Queda in Northern Africa and the Magreb and Ansar al-Sharia were behind the attacks on the consulate and the annex in Benghazi. The question of who was behind the attacks was not a minor item an Ambassador to the U.N. would have overlooked.

2. The CIA draft talking points were, according to General Petraeus’ testimony on Friday, watered down as the result of an inter-agency review process. Presumably the National Security Council was involved in that review, although this has not yet been publicly established.

What is clear is they were watered down to eliminate any reference to Al Qaeda in Northern Africa and the Magreb, or Ansar al-Sharia.

More importantly, perhaps, it is clear that they were very carefully drafted, like the work of a finely-skilled lawyer, in order to give a misleading impression.

3. In her appearances, Ambassador Rice executed her mission in accordance with the revised talking points, and gave misleading responses regarding what had happened in Benghazi. The viewers of these programs are not all highly-trained lawyers, skilled in parsing deliberately ambiguous and misleading information.

4. It appears clear that there was a deliberate effort on the part of those who prepared the talking points to misleadingly evade and downplay the al-Qaeda connection.

It would not have meshed well with the administration’s narrative on terrorism, which was reflected in Susan Rice’s own words:

With respect to this, I think, vacuous charge of weakness, let’s– lets recall, I think, the American people fully understand that this is an administration led by a president who said when he ran for office that he would take the fight to al Qaeda. We have decimated al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is dead. He said we would end the war responsibly in Iraq. We’ve done that.

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