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Surprises in the Benghazi E-Mails

State Department spokeperson Victoria Nuland (photo: talkzimbabwe.com)

State Department spokeperson Victoria Nuland (photo: talkzimbabwe.com)

Two weeks ago I discussed the talking points that Ambassador Susan E. Rice had used to discuss the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, on number of TV current-events programs last September. The succession of drafts showed how the document had evolved in the bureaucratic revision process, with the final version being considerably shorter and less detailed than the original. Several Republicans in Congress and a number of news reporters immediately concluded that any changes introduced in the process must have come from the White House and must have been done for self-serving political purposes.

As I noted then, the earlier argument that the administration must have added the reference to a demonstration outside the diplomatic compound—which later proved not to have existed—was refuted by the presence of that point in every version, including the original. Attention focused, however, on the removal of specific references to al-Qa’ida and Ansar al-Shari’ah and to the removal of references to previous CIA “warnings” concerning acts of violence in Benghazi. These changes were presented as a sort of conspiracy to confuse voters as to whether there had been an attack at all, althoiugh no one had ever denied that the facility had been attacked. The Washington Post has recently reported that the references to the terrorist organizations and warnings were initially included at the behest of David Petraeus, director of the CIA at the time but not an intelligence professional, in an apparent effort to boost the agency’s image.

Members of Congress and of the media soon began to quote leaked snippets of the e-mails through which the interagency discussion of the drafts had occurred. Particular attention went to an e-mail from Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, complaining that references to earlier CIA warnings would make State look bad before Congress, and an e-mail from the National Security Council, allegedly stating that State’s concerns had to be taken into account. A few days later, arguing that isolated e-mail quotes had been not only taken out of context but actually distorted, the White House released the full 100 pages of e-mails on the subject. (Although “100 pages” sounds impressive, they are e-mails; the messages are short, white space abounds, and they accumulated a great deal of repetition as they were sent back and forth through multiple rounds with new messages added on.)

Before proceeding, it is worth noting in passing that Victoria Nuland would be a curious choice for the role of political manipulator. She is not a political appointee, but a professional Foreign Service officer. She has served as ambassador to NATO, as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in the Clinton administration, and as to principal deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the Bush administration. Her husband, Robert Kagan, was a foreign policy adviser to the McCain and Romney campaigns. Having served as department spokesperson for the past two years, she has just been nominated by President Obama to be assistant secretary of state for European affairs. If anything, her career suggests that she must be about as apolitical as a government official can be, but may take the institutional interests of the State Department quite seriously.

Briefly, then, what do we learn from the newly released e-mails—apart from a crash course in how bureaucracy operates? First, not only was the reference to the demonstration in the talking points from the beginning, but no one in any agency questioned it in any way. It was simply accepted as the truth at the time, even if it was later shown to be a mistake.

Regarding the removal of the names al-Qa’ida and Ansar al-Shar’iah, this was something in which many offices participated. In fact, their inclusion was questioned even before the talking points left the CIA. The CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) asked the Near East division (NE):

Second tick says we know extremists with ties to AQ participated in the attack, which implies complicity in the deaths of the American officers. Do we know this?

The response came back from NE:

Good question – I’ll defer to [CIA OTA] (cc’d) given the CT angle.

(The specific name of someone at CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis was deleted from the e-mail prior to declassification. CT is counterterrorism.)

The director of the Office of Terrorism Analysis (again, name deleted) responded next:

Good point that it could be interpreted this way – perhaps better stated that we know they participated in the protests. We do not know who was responsible for the deaths.

The CIA General Counsel later added the following consideration:

Folks, I know there is a hurry to get this out, but we need to hold it long enough to ascertain whether providing it conflicts with express instructions from NSS/DOJ/FBI that, in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this, etc. — even internally, not to mention for public release. I am copying [CIA FO] who may be more familiar with those instructions arising from the HPSCI coffee.

(NSS refers to the National Security Staff, created by President Obama through the merger of the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council staffs. DOJ is the Department of Justice. FO seems to be the CIA director’s office, or “front office.” The “HPSCI coffee” was an earlier meeting between CIA officials, including Director Petraeus, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence at which the request for talking points was made.)

The National Security Council asked that a reference to a CIA warning on September 10 about a possible attack against “the Embassy” be clarified to show that the embassy in Cairo, Egypt, was meant. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), stressing that they had been careful not to say that a “warning” had been issued, substituted the word “notified.”

Meanwhile, the FBI wanted to know exactly who was claiming to have warned the Cairo embassy. More significantly, the FBI recommended editing out the names of the al-Qa’ida and Ansar, suggesting instead: “That being said, there are indications that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” (Note: Last November, Sen. Lindsey Graham publicly opposed the nomination of Michael Morell as director of the CIA because Morell had the audacity to tell him that it was the FBI that removed the names of these organizations from the talking points! The CIA walked it back, suggesting that Morell had misspoken. Evidently, one does not pick fights with senators.)

The resulting language is weak and perhaps timid; many commentators have described it as “covering your ass.” An alternative description might read “being responsible enough not to make claims you cannot substantiate” (perhaps someone had learned something from the Iraq War) and “not ruining a possible criminal case before it begins.” In any event, it is clear that these officials were working with scarce information in a still-confused postcrisis environment, notwithstanding assertions by outsiders that they must have known the whole truth (as defined by the various outsiders) by then.

When the talking points arrived at the State Department, Nuland’s initial response was not about the likely reaction from Congress, but about accuracy and adequate information.

Are these for open or for closed hearing? If open, the line about “knowing” there were extremists among the demonstrators will come back to us at the podium – how do we know, who were they, etc… So I’ll need answers to those if we deploy that line, tx.

At that point, Nuland talked with someone at the CIA Office of Public Affairs and learned the purpose of the talking points. It was then that she sent the message that was later quoted in the media. Although her concerns appear to coincide generally with those of the CIA General Counsel, the quote that appeared in the press was generally limited to the last part.

I just had a convo with [CIA OPA] and I now understand that these are being prepared to give to Members of Congress to use with the media.

On that basis, I have serious concerns about all the parts highlighted below, and arming members of Congress to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.

In same vein, why do we want Hill to be fingering Ansar al Sharia when we aren’t doing that ourselves until we have investigation results… and the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned…

(The “parts highlighted” are the references to al-Qa’ida and Ansar al-Shari’iah and the references to CIA “warnings.”)

Where Nuland got the impression that members of Congress might abuse information to attack the State Department is anyone’s guess. A further comment from another official, however, may help clarify what she had in mind. David S. Adams, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, remarked:

I’m with Toria [Nuland], the last bullet especially will read to members like we had been repeatedly warned.

Meanwhile, the director of policy planning at State wanted to know why the talking points included statements that he had never heard before.

Skinnying list. I do not understand the nature of this exercise. And some of the statements below are new by me. Can we have a conversation before this goes out?

The response from the CIA Office of Public Affairs appears to address Nuland’s concerns about the investigation, but raises no objection to any of her comments:

On that very issue, Toria, we are waiting to hear back from the Bureau.

Nuland’s concern in her final full sentence is not that Congress will find out that they had been warned, but that Congress will be given the false impression that they had been warned. This, presumably, refers not to the warning about the Cairo embassy (which was based on social media calls to attack the embassy and was probably already known by the embassy), but to the reports about Benghazi. A careful reading of the original talking points does not reveal warnings of an impending attack, the agency had merely pointed out that attacks had been occurring in Benghazi. The State Department, of course, already knew this. It had issued its own reports from Benghazi on the subject, reports that were released by the House Oversight Committee last October. If removing these references is bureaucratic “covering your ass,” it does not amount to much. If you could convict people for leaving out of their talking points irrelevant items that adversaries could use against in distorted form, then Washington would be a very empty place, indeed.

Later, Nuland addressed a revised draft.

These don’t resolve all of my issues or those of my building leadership. They are consulting w NSS.

That message, or usually just part of it, has also been quoted in the media. The “issues” are the references to the CIA reports of past incidents, which were still in the talking points at that time. The NSS, as always, was responsible for coordinating the agencies’ positions.

At about this point, Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman intervened, arguing that the fact that so many people in Congress saw the attack as premeditated was a problem.

There is massive disinformation out there, in particular with Congress. They all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings. So I think this is a response to not only a tasking from the house intel committee but also NSC guidance that we need to brief members/press and correct the record.

Benjamin Rhoads of the National Security Council later seconded Vietor’s concerns, while focusing on the issue of getting all the agencies together on the same page through an already scheduled meeting of the deputy heads of the various agencies:

Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.

There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression. We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies.

Neither the White House nor the FBI (after the removal of the terrorist organizations’ names) had major objections to the talking points, but the FBI allowed that the prosecutors at the Department of Justice might.

Just a question- but separate from the FBI concerns, had DOJ, provided input? They will have to deal with the prosecution and related legal matters surrounding the federal investigation.

The CIA revised the talking points with the State Department’s concerns in mind. All agencies signed off on the final version. (The National Security Council and/or State Department changed “Consulate” to “diplomatic post” and added “of” to “those responsible for the deaths US citizens.”) The CIA Office of Congressional Affairs sent them to Director Petraeus with the note:

Sir,

Here are the inter agency approved points for the Hill. They were worked through the DC [deputies’ committee] this morning and were then shot out for final approval. As mentioned last night, State had voiced strong concerns with the original text due to the criminal investigation. That said, I understand NSS is working on an all members briefing this coming week and these are a good starting point.

With your concurrence we will get them to our oversight committees and to our leadership.

Petraeus expressed his disappointment with the much-reduced talking points (“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?”), but signed off, allowing that it was “NSS’s call.” He, like the Office of Terrorism Analysis, opined that the Congressmen would also be disappointed, although Representative Ruppersberger, who made the original request, voiced no objection.

After the process had been finished, the US Permanent Mission to the United Nations (USUN) announced that Ambassador Rice would also use the Congressional talking points—“to make sure we’re on the same msg”—when she appeared on that week’s Sunday talk shows. The USUN provided Rice with a summary of the interagency process that had produced the talking points.

HPSCI request: Late this week, CIA Director Petraeus gave the HPSCI a “hots spots” briefing and was asked for unclassified talking points that its members could use about incident in Benghazi. (Apparently NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] Director Matt Olson received a similar committee [sic] from a congressional committee.) The first draft apparently seemed unsuitable (based on conversations on the SVTS [Secure Video Teleconference System] and afterwards) because they seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy. On the SVTS, [CIA Deputy Director] Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them. He noted that he would be happy to work with Jake Sullivan [of State] and Rhodes [of NSC] to develop appropriate talking points. McDonough, on Rhodes’s behalf, deferred to Sullivan. It was agreed that Jake would work closely with the intelligence community (within a small group) to finalize points on Saturday that could be shared with HPSCI. I spoke to Jake immediately after the SVTS and noted that you were doing the Sunday morning shows and would need to be aware of the final posture that these points took. He committed to ensure that we were updated in advance of the Sunday shows. I specifically mentioned [USUN, specific name deleted] as the one coordinating your preparations for the shows and also strongly encouraged him to loop in [USUN] during the process.

On the morning of the second day of the e-mail exchanges, Olson provided a copy of the separate talking points that had already been sent to Congress. Although it appeared to have bypassed the detailed vetting process (and made a reference to al-Qa’ida without actually linking it to the attack), it was very much in the same vein overall.

It’s very early, less than 72 hours since the attack. So there is a lot we don’t know.

As time progresses, we are learning more, but we still don’t have a complete picture of what happened. Fortunately we have the FBI leading the investigation of the attack. Regrettably they have all too much experience in these matters.

At this point, we are not aware of any actionable intelligence that this attack was planned or imminent. The intelligence community is combing through reporting from before and after the attack to determine the full extent of who was involved.

Libya is awash in weapons – unconventional weapons were stored in unsecured locations across the country. Following the revolution, there are still many well-armed militia remaining.

Since the revolution we have many indicators al-Qa’ida and other groups are seeking to establish a presence in Libya. Remember some senior al-Qa’ida members such as Abu Yahya al-Libi came from Libya.

We are very cautious about drawing any firm conclusions at this point with regard to the identification and motivation of the attackers. The IC [intelligence community] is working aggressively to this end, and the FBI will continue its investigation.

Unrest in the Middle East creates a permissive environment for terrorists. In the days and weeks ahead, we need to be especially vigilant in protecting our people.

Rhoads and Vietor had wanted to use the talking points to counter the misimpressions about the Benghazi attack that were already rapidly spreading. Ironically, the attempt backfired. Rice was widely accused of lying about what was known and doing so for political purposes, with the presumed attempt of creating the impression that the United States had not been attacked by terrorists in the run-up to the election. The e-mails behind the talking points show no evidence of such reasoning by any of the participants, and Rice was not even a participant.

The conventional wisdom, however, was already so strong that few if any saw any need to identify exactly what it was that distinguished Rice’s version of events from “a terrorist attack.” Apparently, a terrorist attack was what had occurred on 9/11; this was on the anniversary of 9/11; ergo it was like 9/11; 9/11 had been meticulously planned and prepared for months in advance by dedicated terrorists, and therefore this had been as well. Just how wrong were the talking points? We still do not know, yet there are some clues that they were not as wrong as people assume.

It is now widely accepted that there was no demonstration or protest preceding the attack. That, however, is the only point that has been withdrawn. David Ignatius of the Washington Post quoted an unnamed CIA official on the subject last October. Acknowledging that the document had been wrong to describe the attack as “spontaneous,” the official said he would now use the word “opportunistic.” (“We still believe the timing of the attack was influenced by events in Cairo.”) In his view, the event was neither spontaneous nor planned and may have involved attackers with very different motives.

The attackers were disorganized; some seemed more interested in looting. Some who claimed to have participated joined the attack as it began or after it was under way. There is no evidence of rehearsals, they never got into the safe room . . . never took any hostages, didn’t bring explosives to blow the safe room door, and didn’t use a car bomb to blow the gates.

Describing the attackers as “a flash mob with weapons,” he said they included members of at least three known organizations—Ansar al-Shari’iah, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Egypt-based Muhammad Jamal network—along with unarmed looters.

Tommy Vietor, no longer with the NSC, also dismisses the notion that the attack was a long-planned al-Qa’ida operation. As for the nonexistent protest, he asked intelligence officials why they had believed it had happened: “They told me that there were many strands of information indicating there was a protest, both open source and intelligence based.” He also says that a high-ranking CIA official (presumably Morell) agreed that the references in the talking points to previous attacks had been unfair to the State Department. In addition, Vietor brings up the famous internet video.

But one of the most frustrating parts of this discussion is the degree to which people now dismiss the impact of the Innocence of Muslims video. Our embassies in Cairo, Yemen and Sudan were attacked and seriously damaged. A western restaurant was torched in Lebanon. Dozens of countries experienced protests where scores of people died. Our troops in Afghanistan had to reduce their operational tempo and exposure as a preventative measure. Today, people act like the administration invented the issue. A 30-second scan of headlines from that week shows otherwise.

Vietor then links to 11 news articles about the video and its impact at the time and adds that Rice would truly have been in trouble if she had ignored her talking points and ad-libbed, as so many of her detractors now insist would have been appropriate. He stresses that the focus of the administration’s attention in the week after the attack, rather than falsifying talking points, was on “the safety and security of US personnel serving overseas” as protests continued to expand geographically and military units were put in position for possible evacuations. He also points out that no one in the White House ever expected voters to base their electoral decisions, one way or the other, on the basis of U.S. relations with Libya.

The talking points delivered on television talk shows on Sept. 16, 2012, should have had no lasting role in history whatsoever. That they did, and that they continue to do so, however, is a fascinating subject. It is fascinating not for what Susan Rice said or for what the administration was trying to do—all that was totally banal. Rather, the value is in what this says about the state of politics in the United States today. The way in which people react to sudden, chaotic events by filling in information gaps with their own preconceived notions of how the world works, their willingness to see scandal in the most bizarre places and to hang on to such notions with complete disregard for sense or evidence will keep me interested for some time to come. To understand the discrepancy between the conception and the reality, however, requires a detailed understanding of what really happened, no matter how banal.