Putting on a good show
On September 16, five days after the Benghazi attack, Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on five Sunday morning talk shows, representing the administration to members of the press and public anxiously awaiting answers.
And Susan Rice said something that turned out not to be true. And then important people kept repeating that something long after they knew it wasn’t true.
There are entirely plausible alternative explanations for Ms. Rice saying what she did, other than that she lied. There is the possibility she didn’t know what she was saying wasn’t the truth.
But that she said something that wasn’t true is undeniable. That she deviated from the talking points provided her is—or should be—beyond debate.
That it was a critical untruth that helped a president get re-elected, and that it strengthened a mythology within the administration justifying in its own eyes a serious erosion of First Amendment protections, is something I think we need to talk about.
Especially in the context of IRS wrongdoing, the AP and James Rosen revelations, and now the NSA.
Here are the five shows Susan Rice appeared on, with links to the transcripts:
- ABC: “This Week”
- CBS: “Face the Nation”
- Fox: “Fox News Sunday”
- NBC: “Meet the Press”
- CNN: “State of the Union”
This is what Rice said on ABC’s “This Week,” guest-hosted by Jake Tapper:
…our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
So far Rice isn’t explicitly linking the video to the violence in Benghazi. The inference she’s making is pretty strong however.
During her Fox appearance, Chris Wallace plays a video clip of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying,
This is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive.
That clip was from the Friday preceding Ambassador Fox’s Sunday morning rounds. This is important because it’s clear in context Carney’s referencing Benghazi as well as Cairo.
Chris Wallace asks,
You don’t really believe that?
Chris, absolutely I believe that. In fact, it is the case. We had the evolution of the Arab spring over the last many months. But what sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful very offensive video that has offended many people around the world.
On NBC, David Gregory mentions Egypt and Libya and asks Ambassador Rice for her response to calls by members of Congress to review aid to these two countries.
Well, first of all, David, let’s put this in perspective. As I said, this is a response to a–a very offensive video.
So now Ambassador Rice has made explicit what she’d left implicit on ABC.
Breaking out the party hats
Over the last month—at least until NSA revelations took the limelight off the effort—there was a lot of high-fiving and backslapping going on in response to the alleged vindication of Susan Rice.
Obviously, Goldberg wants to make sure we all know that Susan Rice isn’t at fault in the Benghazi attacks.
Which I thought we all did know.
After all, she didn’t order the attacks. And as far as anyone knows, it wasn’t her fault there wasn’t adequate security or a timely response.
Then again—nobody blamed her for those administration failures to begin with.
What we blamed her for was putting forth a breathtakingly counter-factual explanation for the Benghazi attack that was not in her talking points and which almost no foreign policy expert in the administration believed.
So it turns out that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, before a group of leading Senate Republicans decided that she was evil incarnate, a top contender to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, had nothing to do with formulating the White House’s response to the fatal attacks last year at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Goldberg’s “group of leading Senate Republicans” turns out to be Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were focused on Rice’s Sunday morning riff about the video, a misstatement of fact that Goldberg admits, but minimizes.
She got ahead of the talking points by explicitly linking the attacks to protests over the anti-Muslim video, but that’s about it.
Goldberg wrote this after then-Secretary Clinton approached the father of one those killed in Benghazi and promised that the video’s producer would go to jail. And, of course, after he did go to jail.
But that’s about it.
White House Benghazi Emails Show Susan Rice Got a Bad Rap. Karl’s defense is that Rice was simply reading the script others gave her. Unlike Goldberg, he denies Rice deviated at all from the talking points.
Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has now been tapped as President Obama’s national security adviser, came under withering criticism after she famously appeared on five Sunday talk shows Sept. 16, 2012, and proclaimed the attack five days earlier on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, grew out of a spontaneous protest inspired by the protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
That proved to be wrong. There were no protests in Benghazi. The incident started as an attack by a large group heavily armed men assaulting the compound.
But Rice didn’t invent the notion of spontaneous protest. And although she downplayed indications of an al Qaeda connection to the attack, that wasn’t her idea, either. Rice was the White House’s messenger on Benghazi, and although she was carrying a message that proved to be wrong, we know now that she herself had nothing to do with the crafting of that message.
It turns out that Rice’s comments did come from the now-infamous CIA talking points and, while those talking points were heavily edited, the White House emails suggest Rice had no part in the editing process.
I challenged Karl on that point via Twitter. His replies opened up a fascinating can of worms for me, from within the White House’s talking points document dump. Beyond that, though, he’s on shaky ground, relying on a very weak inference.
It’s the same one John Dickerson relies on.
John Dickerson: Susan Rice and Her Attackers
Dickerson, while not celebratory, is protective of Rice’s reputation. Even to the point of making her out to be a lightweight in the eyes of her colleagues. Dickerson believes the email revelations demonstrate that Rice was completely out of the decision-making loop.
I’m not sure how McCain and Graham became the face for the torrent of criticism aimed against Rice after her Sunday morning appearances, but Dickerson—normally as careful an MSM analyst as there is in Washington—echoes Goldberg’s use of these living strawmen to redirect that criticism into something more easily refutable.
His defense of Rice’s video blunder is based on a short, but very weak chain of inference.
The idea of a spontaneous demonstration sparking the attack came from the CIA, not Rice. Yes, but what about the video? Rice mentioned that the video sparked the protest. There was nothing about that in the CIA talking points. True, but the CIA-informed talking points say that the Benghazi attack was inspired by the Cairo protests. What started the Cairo protests? The video.
That certainly was the spin put on the demonstrations by the White House. But was it the truth, or a pretext?
More important to John’s point: Saying the video led to the Egyptian protests and the Egyptian protests led to Benghazi protests, which then morphed into an attack is not the same as saying the video inspired the Benghazi attacks.
My argument focuses on the absence of the video in the talking points from the beginning. Surely, if the CIA believed that the video was the actual cause of the Cairo demonstrations and the proximate cause of an alleged demonstration in Benghazi, it would have said so.
But the video explanation is nowhere to be found in any iteration of the talking points.
(The video is mentioned in the subject line of two emails involving Rice, but the entire message content of these emails has been redacted out—an interesting fact that bears looking into. What discussion took place in those emails? If Rice got the talking points from those specific emails, as Karl alleged to me, why were they redacted out?)
David Ignatius: Susan Rice, a provocateur in the West Wing
Ignatius takes the opposite tack from Dickerson. He highlights Rice’s close relationship with a president whose administration is “struggling to find its voice in the second term.” Ignatius is hopeful that Rice will help the president by providing “the White House a compelling new focal point on foreign policy.” Fine as it goes, but he tries to vindicate Rice by minimizing her Sunday appearances.
And then there’s Benghazi: Obama is swapping a man who generally avoided the Sunday talk shows for someone who nearly committed career suicide for delivering the famous talking points (for which she was otherwise blameless). Enough, already, about Benghazi.
That’s it. That’s his entire defense. And he manages to leave out improvisation about the video.
As I look at Dickerson’s and Ignatius’s perspectives on Rice, I am frightened by this thought: What if they’re both right? What if she IS close to the president and they were BOTH out of the loop? Not a confidence-building exercise for me. Especially if Rice decides to ride roughshod over all those administration folks who set her up to take the heat over their faulty talking points. [NOTE: It does appear this was a valid concern, at least from the perspective of the Deputy CIA Director who signed off on the talking points.}
The bottom line
In a powerful USA Today column, Glenn Reynolds outlines the current Obama scandals, including this one. He makes the case that “the common thread running through [Obama’s] scandals is an abuse of power.”
As for abuse, well, is it plausible to believe that a government that would abuse the powers of the IRS to attack political enemies, go after journalists who publish unflattering material or scapegoat a filmmaker in the hopes of providing political cover to an election-season claim that al-Qaeda was finished would have any qualms about misusing the massive power of government-run snooping and Big Data? What we’ve seen here is a pattern of abuse. There’s little reason to think that pattern will change, absent a change of administration — and, quite possibly, not even then. Sooner or later, power granted tends to become power abused. Then there’s the risk that information gathered might leak, of course, as recent events demonstrate.
Most Americans generally think that politicians are untrustworthy. So why trust them with so much power? The evidence to date strongly suggests that they aren’t worthy of it.
The Susan Rice video misstatements are themselves a scandal worthy of more concern than I see being expressed in the mainstream press at present. Not only does it raise critical issues in its own right, but like Reynolds, I believe the Rice scandal isn’t a simple misstep, but part of a far larger and troubling pattern that threatens all of our liberties.
This is more than just getting the record right.
This is about restoring trust—by restoring trustworthiness—to the American political system.