Benghazi Talking Points Jamboree

I’m in transit for a while, so my capable colleague Emma Roller is going to the Benghazi hearings in person, but it’s probably a good time to revisit one of my Benghazigate obsessions – whether or not Susan Rice said the attacks were “spontaneous.” Driving around South Carolina, I heard more than one interview with House Republicans where this claim was repeated. Sean Hannity, conducting one of those interviews, joked about the absurdity of pretending that people just happened to show up at a protest with rocket launchers.

Didn’t we litigate the hell out of this last year? Rice appeared on the Sunday shows after a few days of protests, which the protesters (who hardly needed an excuse) blamed on the movie “Innocence of Muslims.” Interviewers usually doubled up their questions to Rice: What happened in Benghazi, and was it related to the movie protests? Rice always differentiated between a “spontaneous” protest (we now know that there was an arsonist attack from an angry mob, and this is what killed Chris Stevens) and the later attacks, with the exception of her CBS News interview. (Only CBS News booked the president of Libya alongside Rice.)

SUSAN RICE: 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.

Stephen Hayes has reported on the progress of the talking points in the days before Rice’s interview. Interestingly, she repeated some of the lines that had been redacted – the bit about the “availibility of weapons.” The first version of the memo mentioned a possible al Qaeda connection, and that was taken out, according to Hayes, quoting House investigators, because State may have been concerned that the raw version made it look like they were “not paying attention to Agency warnings.” (Last year, sources told the New York Times that the redactions were made for murky intel reasons.)

But a version of this graf appeared in every version of the talking points.

We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex.

The “spontaneous protest” bit was always part of the talking points. With the exception of Rice’s dodge about whether the attacks were “premeditated or preplanned,” the two talking points were twinned: There was a protest, there were attacks from “extremists.”

This is why Talking Pointsaquiddick has never really thrown me. The angle did take on new weight when Darrell Issa started releasing quotes from Gregory Hicks’ interview with investigators.

He also expresses frustration about why U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on all the major Sunday talk shows five days after the attacks and said they were sparked by protest and not premeditated, as Libya President Magarief was saying otherwise.

“I reported an attack on the consulate,” Hicks says in the transcripts. “It’s jaw dropping that to me how that came to be. … I was personally known to one of Ambassador Rice’s staff members. And, you know, we’re six hours ahead of Washington. Even on Sunday morning I could have been called.”

But the “protests” were always in the talking points. Why? In October, in a State Department briefing, the situation in Benghazi at the start of the evening was described this way:

At 9:40 p.m., the agent in the TOC and the agents in Building C hear loud noises coming from the front gate. They also hear gunfire and an explosion. The agent in the TOC looks at his cameras – these are cameras that have pictures of the perimeter – and the camera on the main gate reveals a large number of people – a large number of men, armed men, flowing into the compound. One special agent immediately goes to get the Ambassador in his bedroom and gets Sean, and the three of them enter the safe haven inside the building.

How did it get described as a “protest” in the first place? No one’s answered that yet. But it didn’t start on the Sunday shows.