I Was Promised a Cover-Up

The White House Benghazi emails reveal a smoking gun. But it wasn’t the one that Republicans set out to find.

Followed by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (R), U.S. President Barack Obama (L) approaches to the podium at the James Brady Press Briefing Room for a press conference at the White House on April 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The White House Benghazi emails show little evidence of a concerted effort to cover up what happened in Libya last September

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

I was told there was going to be a cover-up. After reading the 100 pages of emails related to the Benghazi media talking points, I’m hard-pressed to find evidence for the most damning accusations against the president and his staff. If they were involved, they were once again leading from behind. 

The most incendiary charge aimed at the president is that, in order to insulate himself in an election year, he and his team made up a fake story about a “spontaneous uprising” in Benghazi and downplayed intelligence that it could have been a premeditated attack by known terrorist organizations. There has been so much spinning from the president and his staff in the aftermath of the attack, this storyline seems possible—when the public spin is this bad it is easy to imagine deeper rot. The emails help your imagination along. They destroy the impression left last November by White House spokesman Jay Carney that only a single word was changed in the process, which can get your adrenaline up. But when you pull on the thread in search of evidence for the Big Story, your heartbeat slows. The emails show a lot of CIA and State Department action, but comparatively little White House meddling, and certainly nothing near the level of meddling that would be required to put in the big fix. 

One of the challenges of figuring out what’s a cover-up, what’s a lie, and what’s just spin in this Benghazi drama is that this entire discussion is about media talking points. Talking points produced to guide members of Congress in their conversations with the media are not the product of sodium pentothal. They are created to put the best face on an event and to coordinate spin so that everyone in the administration, campaign, or party caucus has the story straight. That means if you don’t see bureaucratic ass-covering and efforts to make the interesting appear bland, you’re not reading talking points. So, for example, when House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama have a contentious meeting, their aides agree on talking points in which they tell the media the two men had a “frank exchange.” Not a lie, but not an expletive-laden transcript either. In this case, the talking points were being created on the fly as information was coming in about the attack and an investigation was underway. So, in addition to the normal massaging of language, there was a good deal of imprecision, too. 

Given that context, what do the emails tell us about the Obama election-season cover-up story? First there is the matter of the “spontaneous demonstration” that ignited the violence. The president’s critics contend that the Obama team put United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows to promote a false story about a link between the violence in Benghazi and the demonstrations in Cairo over an anti-Islamic video. If this were true, it would indeed make the whole business a cover-up. Talking points may not be suitable for stone tablets, but you’re not supposed to actually lie. But the one thing that is consistent throughout the talking-point editing process is the very first sentence of the CIA assessment: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.” 

There is no mention of a video in the talking points, which Rice brought up on television that Sunday, but the video was the pretext for the Cairo protests. (You may remember that before the State Department was covering its behind about the Benghazi attack, it was doing so over the Cairo embassy apology for the video.) In 1992, if you’d talked about the riots in Los Angeles it would have been reasonable to refer to them as the riots that were based on the Rodney King video. 

Let’s not fixate too much on the video, though. It’s less important to the cover-up narrative than the idea that the attack was a spontaneous event. What administration critics find risible about the reliance on the video is the thinking behind it: that this level of violence could ever be considered spontaneous. Fair point, but that’s a problem with the CIA’s first assessment, not evidence that supports a White House cover-up. 

The cover-up story relies on the premise that Obama administration officials pushed the idea of spontaneity in order to obscure the fact that they had missed warnings of planned terrorist attack. It’s plausible that someone was pushing that story for parochial reasons in these email exchanges. Perhaps the CIA put that idea in its first assessment and kept it there in every subsequent version to cover for its failure to stay on top of the al-Qaida affiliates in Benghazi, even though there was a CIA outpost there. It’s also obvious that the State Department wanted to shift blame away from its failure to protect its people in Benghazi. But there’s no evidence in the emails that the idea of spontaneity was initiated by anyone associated with Obama, the White House, or the president’s wider political fortunes. Did Obama benefit from the spontaneity narrative? Yes. But to embrace intelligence from your CIA that is favorable to you—when you have no reason to doubt your intelligence service—is not the same as making up a false story. It’s not even a sin.

Next we come to the claim that the president and his team removed the references to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations as well as references to prior warnings about terrorist activity. If this were the case, you would expect to see some effort by the White House voices in the email traffic toward this goal. It’s not there. The opposite is the case. In the initial round of emails, one CIA official reports that the White House signed off right away on the full initial CIA assessment. “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns,” reads an email that a CIA official sent to CIA director David Petraeus. So rather than being the authors of the bowdlerizing effort, the White House was just fine with the fully caffeinated version that mentions Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida, and that the CIA had produced numerous warnings about extremists in Benghazi. White House aides reviewed the talking points, made no substantive changes, and moved them along.

When the language does eventually change in the talking points, it is clear that it is at the behest of State Department officials, not anyone in the White House. When Obama’s aides do come on stage, it’s pretty far in the background. One State Department official writes, “Talked to [NSC spokesman] Tommy [Vietor], we can make edits.” This is hardly the vision of a campaign-obsessed Obama operation pushing a storyline. There have been some sloppy Nixon analogies thrown around this week, so let’s remind ourselves for a moment of what a real cover-up sounds like. “I don’t give a shit what happens,” President Nixon was recorded saying. “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else if it’ll save it—save the plan. That’s the whole point. … We’re going to protect our people, if we can.”

Aides to Republicans pushing for additional investigations concede that the leaked emails don’t show much White House involvement. That takes the heat off of Obama and puts it on Hillary Clinton—who was always an ancillary target of the Benghazi inquest. In congressional testimony, Secretary of State Clinton said, “It was an intelligence product,” referring to the talking points and adding later that the “intelligence community was the principal decider about what went into talking points.” That doesn’t stand up now that we can see how thoroughly the State Department was reworking the language.

The original talking points authored by the CIA were wrong about the spontaneity of the uprising, but they substantiated the idea that there was a broader terrorist threat on the ground. The final product that informed Susan Rice’s talk show appearances was both wrong and bland. What’s clear from the email exchanges is that the State Department insisted on the changes for a mix of ass-covering and self-defense reasons. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, didn’t want to give Congressional critics talking points that could be used against the State Department. That would no doubt please her former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, who had a very stingy view about what Congress had a right to hear when it came to national security matters. 

Cheney was among those this week pushing the idea that the president concocted the story of a spontaneous riot to protect his election chances. That the CIA analysts fed the president intelligence that turned out to be imprecise would no doubt be insufficient for the former vice president, though Cheney had a similar experience. He cites the CIA as the source of his long-held incorrect view that Iraq played a role in the 9/11 attacks. (If he weren’t on the other side of the ideological divide, perhaps he and the president could commiserate over how hard it is to get a story straight.)

Just because there’s no real evidence of the grand White House conspiracy doesn’t absolve the president of responsibility for the underlying failures and the shoddy efforts to explain the whole affair. From his first remarks in the Rose Garden, to the exchanges in the debates with Mitt Romney, to the present day, the president has been shading and back-dating what he said shortly after the attack to make it seem like he was aware it was a planned attack when at the time he was encouraging the view that it was a spontaneous one. That’s spin and it’s lame, but it’s a present-day failing unconnected with White House actions last fall. So the president and his aides are guilty—guilty of doing a bad and misleading job of explaining why there was no cover-up. But that’s not the smoking gun Republicans set out to find.