It’s not just that Barack Obama may have been involved in an administration-wide effort to downplay his botched handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. It’s also that he dismissed as a “phony scandal” efforts of House Republicans to get to the truth.
Hubris that stunning has no statute of limitations. Fittingly, Judicial Watchdog announced yesterday that it is in possession of 41 new Benghazi-related State Department documents, including a newly declassified email, that show conclusively that then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was coached by the White House on how to frame her “talking points,” falsely claiming that the attacks were a spontaneous mob demonstration.
The documents were released Friday as result of a June 21, 2013, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed against the Department of State (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of State (No. 1:13-cv-00951)) to gain access to documents about the controversial talking points used by then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice for a series of appearances on television Sunday news programs on September 16, 2012. Judicial Watch had been seeking these documents since October 18, 2012.
Of particular interest is the email sent by then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes on Friday, September 14, 2012. The email carries the subject line “RE: PREP CALL with Susan, Saturday at 4:00 pm ET.” The documents show that the “prep” was for Rice’s Sunday news show appearances to state that the Benghazi attack was “rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy.” Other documents in the batch show that State Department officials initially described the incident as an “attack” and a possible kidnap attempt.
One document lists four “Goals” of the Rice appearance. Among them and highlighted is this bullet point: “To underscore that these protests are rooted in and Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.” Another of the “Goals” of the PR offensive Rhodes outlines is “[T]o reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
The distribution list of the email included other White House public relations personnel, including Press Secretary Jay Carney, Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, then-Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, then-Deputy Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri, and then-National Security Council Director of Communications Erin Pelton, among others. Recipients are told to portray Obama as “steady and statesmanlike” throughout the crisis.
The documents obtained by Judicial Watch also reveal that the so-called “CIA talking points” that were prepared for Congress and may have been used by Rice on “Face the Nation” and four additional Sunday talk shows on September 16 had been heavily edited by then-CIA deputy director Mike Morell. From one email:
The first draft apparently seemed unsuitable… because they [sic] seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy. On the SVTS, Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy hand to editing them. He noted that he would be happy to work with [then deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton] Jake Sullivan and Rhodes to develop appropriate talking points.
Here is what Rice said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and four other Sunday news programs in more or less the same language:
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-sparked by this hateful video. [Emphasis added]
The new documents reveal that Rice’s explanation for the attacks was far from the “best information” available. The ball is now squarely in the administration’s court.