Benghazi: Entitled to the Truth

Posted: May 06, 2013 12:01 AM

"If the House report provides an accurate and complete depiction of the emails, it is clear that senior administration officials engaged in a wholesale rewriting of intelligence assessments about Benghazi in order to mislead the public." 

                                                   Stephen F. Hayes, The Weekly Standard

You know the scene from A Few Good Men; Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) presses Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) to get the facts about the death of Pfc. William Santiago (Michael DiLorenzo). 

Jessup: "You want answers?"

Kaffee: "I think I'm entitled to them."

Jessup: "You want answers?"

Kaffee: "I want the truth!"

Jessup: "You can't handle the truth!"

Jessup's erroneous belief that the end – largely defined by him – justified any means – also, defined by him, including suppression of the truth and the rule of law.  

While inspired by a true story, the famous movie is largely Hollywood fiction.  However, from the beginning on the night of September 11, 2012, the Obama Administration operated as if the American people couldn't handle the truth about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Or, more likely, that the interests of the White House and the President's re-election campaign would not be well served if the truth were known.  Thus, the effort to cover-up and suppress the truth.

Among the many immediate questions that arose was the denial of any connection between the perpetrators of the attack and al Qaeda. Despite the White House and State Department's denial, the CIA confirmed within days that the intelligence community immediately made the connection to Islamic terror organizations.  Only after weeks of claiming the murderous attack was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video no one seemed to have seen, did the White House eventually capitulate. 

How the Obama White House's talking points evolved in those first days and who was ultimately responsible for the Administration's preferred version of "the truth" quickly became part of a growing scandal, and remains so today.

Stephen F. Hayes has published and advanced online version of "The Benghazi Talking Points" which offers considerable illumination to the questions that remain.  His article will appear in print in the May 13 issue of The Weekly Standard where Hayes is a Senior Writer.  Hayes is also the author of two New York Times best sellers, Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President and The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. He is also a regular Fox All Stars panelist on Special Report with Bret Baier. 

The entire article is available here. Key excerpts, including the three-stage revisions to the CIA assessment that became the Administration's talking points are included below:

The Weekly Standard has obtained a timeline briefed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence detailing the heavy substantive revisions made to the CIA’s talking points, just six weeks before the 2012 presidential election, and additional information about why the changes were made and by whom.

As intelligence officials pieced together the puzzle of events unfolding in Libya, they concluded even before the assaults had ended that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved. Senior administration officials, however, sought to obscure the emerging picture and downplay the significance of attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The frantic process that produced the changes to the talking points took place over a 24-hour period just one day before Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made her now-famous appearances on the Sunday television talk shows. The discussions involved senior officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the White House.

Hayes references the information in a House report from the chairmen of five investigative committees, lays his foundation, and then makes a most serious indictment:

If the House report provides an accurate and complete depiction of the emails, it is clear that senior administration officials engaged in a wholesale rewriting of intelligence assessments about Benghazi in order to mislead the public.

Hayes notes information contained in State Department alerts sent at 4:05pm and 6:08pm Eastern time while the Consulate was under attack indicating that Ansar al Sharia, a Libyan based al Qaeda-linked terrorist group had claimed credit for the attack.  He continues:

....A cable sent the following day, September 12, by the CIA station chief in Libya, reported that eyewitnesses confirmed the participation of Islamic militants and made clear that U.S. facilities in Benghazi had come under terrorist attack. It was this fact, along with several others, that top Obama officials would work so hard to obscure.

After a briefing on Capitol Hill by CIA director David Petraeus, Democrat Dutch Ruppersburger, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, asked the intelligence community for unclassified guidance on what members of Congress could say in their public comments on the attacks. The CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis prepared the first draft of a response to the congressman, which was distributed internally for comment at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, September 14 (Version 1 below). This initial CIA draft included the assertion that the U.S. government “know[s] that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.” That draft also noted that press reports “linked the attack to Ansar al Sharia. The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved.” Ansar al Sharia, the CIA draft continued, aims to spread sharia law in Libya and “emphasizes the need for jihad.” The agency draft also raised the prospect that the facilities had been the subject of jihadist surveillance and offered a reminder that in the previous six months there had been “at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy.”

After the internal distribution, CIA officials amended that draft to include more information about the jihadist threat in both Egypt and Libya. “On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the [Cairo] Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy,” the agency had added by late afternoon. And: “The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al Qaeda in Benghazi and Libya.” But elsewhere, CIA officials pulled back. The reference to “Islamic extremists” no longer specified “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda,” and the initial reference to “attacks” in Benghazi was changed to “demonstrations.”

The talking points were first distributed to officials in the interagency vetting process at 6:52 p.m. on Friday. Less than an hour later, at 7:39 p.m., an individual identified in the House report only as a “senior State Department official” responded to raise “serious concerns” about the draft. That official, whom The Weekly Standard has confirmed was State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, worried that members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State Department for “not paying attention to Agency warnings.”

In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all references to Ansar al Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up email at 9:24 p.m., Nuland wrote that the problem remained and that her superiors—she did not say which ones—were unhappy. The changes, she wrote, did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership,” and State Department leadership was contacting National Security Council officials directly. Moments later, according to the House report, “White House officials responded by stating that the State Department’s concerns would have to be taken into account.” One official—Ben Rhodes, The Weekly Standard is told, a top adviser to President Obama on national security and foreign policy—further advised the group that the issues would be resolved in a meeting of top administration officials the following morning at the White House.

Below are the three versions of the talking points as published by Hayes and The Weekly Standard.

There is little information about what happened at that meeting of the Deputies Committee. But according to two officials with knowledge of the process, Mike Morrell, deputy director of the CIA, made broad changes to the draft afterwards. Morrell cut all or parts of four paragraphs of the six-paragraph talking points—148 of its 248 words (see Version 2 above). Gone were the reference to “Islamic extremists,” the reminders of agency warnings about al Qaeda in Libya, the reference to “jihadists” in Cairo, the mention of possible surveillance of the facility in Benghazi, and the report of five previous attacks on foreign interests. 

What remained—and would be included in the final version of the talking points—was mostly boilerplate about ongoing investigations and working with the Libyan government, together with bland language suggesting that the “violent demonstrations”—no longer “attacks”—were spontaneous responses to protests in Egypt and may have included generic “extremists” (see Version 3 above).

Then came the "blame the video" spin.

In ensuing days, administration officials emphasized a “demonstration” in front of the U.S. facility in Benghazi and claimed that the demonstrators were provoked by a YouTube video. The CIA had softened “attack” to “demonstration.” But as soon became clear, there had been no demonstration in Benghazi.

More troubling was the YouTube video. [UN Ambassador Susan] Rice would spend much time on the Sunday talk shows pointing to this video as the trigger of the chaos in Benghazi. “What sparked the violence was a very hateful video on the Internet. It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States.” There is no mention of any “video” in any of the many drafts of the talking points.

Still, top Obama officials would point to the video to explain Benghazi. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even denounced the video in a sort of diplomatic public service announcement in Pakistan. In a speech at the United Nations on September 25, the president mentioned the video several times in connection with Benghazi.

When doubts arose about the implausible video defense, the White House only dug in their heels.

…It was a preview of the administration’s defense of its claims on Ben­ghazi. After pushing the intelligence community to revise its talking points to fit the administration’s preferred narrative, administration officials would point fingers at the intelligence community when parts of that narrative were shown to be misleading or simply untrue.

And at times, members of the intelligence community appeared eager to help. On September 28, a statement from ODNI seemed designed to quiet the growing furor over the administration’s explanations of Benghazi. “In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”

The statement continued: “As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al Qaeda.”

The statement strongly implies that the information about al Qaeda-linked terrorists was new, a revision of the initial assessment. But it wasn’t. Indeed, the original assessment stated, without qualification, “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.”

The statement from the ODNI came not from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, but from his spokesman, Shawn Turner. When the statement was released, current and former intelligence officials told The Weekly Standard that they found the statement itself odd and the fact that it didn’t come from Clapper stranger still. Clapper was traveling when he was first shown a draft of the statement to go out under his name. It is not an accident that it didn’t.

On Wednesday, May 8 the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled another hearing delving into the unanswered questions and conflicting information regarding the Benghazi attack.  Three State Department employees labeled as "whistleblowers" are set to testify about what they know.  Many questions remain including the denial of requests for additional security for the Consulate prior to the attack, failure to deploy military assets during the attack, the inaccessibility of survivors, and failure to "bring to justice" those responsible although identities are known. 

When pressed for the truth, Hillary Clinton fumed, "What difference does it make?"  The President just wants to move on.  "Benghazi happened a long time ago," his spokesman Jay Carney said last week.

Like Lt. Kaffee in A Few Good Men, the families of the victims as well as the American people are entitled to the truth.  Col. Jessup ultimately paid a heavy price for withholding the truth and breaking the law.  If Stephen Hayes is correct, "that senior administration officials engaged in a wholesale rewriting of intelligence assessments about Benghazi in order to mislead the public," the same fate might await some big names in the Obama Administration.