Furious that Obama paid no electoral price for Benghazi, Republicans are threatening to filibuster his presumed secretary of state nominee, Susan Rice, as a scapegoat. Michael Tomasky on the real scandal.
There would seem to be little connection between Nate Silver and Susan Rice, but hear me out. The New York Times electoral savant was said to be “controversial.” No one adduced a lick of factual evidence for why he should have been thought to be so, but people on the right just didn’t like his electoral predictions, so they tried to make him controversial. With respect to Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, much the same is true. In reality land, she’s done nothing that ought to be considered all that controversial. But again, conservatives don’t like the outcome—Democrats having the upper hand on foreign policy and national security—so they’re trying to make her controversial.
Let’s start at the beginning. What did Rice have to do with the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack? In all likelihood, absolutely nothing. Consular security is a State Department matter. The U.N. ambassador has no authority over such questions. If the matter of security in Benghazi was ever the subject of a principals-level meeting of the top national-security team, then maybe she was privy to a discussion. But it’s certainly not her decision. The only outpost whose security she’s responsible for is the one in Turtle Bay.
For a while one heard conservatives ask, well, if this wasn’t her gig, then why did the administration send her out there on those Sunday shows Sept. 16? It didn’t prove much, this question, one way or the other, but it was a fair enough point. This past Sunday, The New York Times’ reporting answered it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should have been the one to do those shows, and she was asked first, but she said no.
So Rice was just being a good team player. She said what she was told by intelligence agencies to say. If you look over her remarks, they were invariably carefully couched, to each host: “the best information we have at present,” she said to NBC’s David Gregory. So it was. As The Wall Street Journal and others have reported, the intel assessments were changing the day she was on those shows, but she didn’t yet know that.
I realize all this sounds very suspicious to Obama haters. But this is how the world goes sometimes. David Petraeus has confirmed that while he knew or sensed from the start that it was a terrorist attack, America’s 16 intelligence agencies weren’t ready to say that publicly, mostly for fear of tipping off the bad guys. So Rice said what she was told to say.
John McCain, I’d bet, knows all the above and isn’t even really mad at her. He’s mad at two other things. Well, three other things. First, he’s mad he’s not the president, and the president’s the president. Second, he, and many Republicans, are pissed off that Obama paid no electoral price for the Benghazi attack. This is all but inconceivable to them because in the ecosystem in which they thrive, Benghazi is bigger than Watergate, Waterloo, and waterboarding combined. They can’t understand or accept that many middle Americans don’t share their outrage.
But most middle Americans recognize Benghazi for what it was—a terribly sad tragedy, but the kind of thing that, in a dangerous world, happens. And yes, many middle Americans would consider it a smudge on the administration’s security record, but most middle Americans also know that record is otherwise rather impressive. It seems to me someone just ran for president trying to argue otherwise, and he lost pretty handily.
A diplomat under fire.
With the presidential campaign drowning in boredom, commentators were desperately searching for news, preferably a new victim, to brighten their days. And along came Susan Rice. A couple Sundays ago, the U.N. ambassador made the mistake of appearing on the talk shows to insist that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was “spontaneous” rather than a terrorist plot. You would have thought she had said that the pope was a Mormon.
Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio
Out came the Washington daggers. She lied. She was a shill. Benghazi was no spontaneous event. It was the work of an al Qaeda offshoot. The White House had fumbled key intelligence information and was now trying to cover up its unforgivable mistake. Rice was just covering up for the president. Her reward would be Obama’s nominating her to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of State.
The commentariat immediately rolled out plans to nail Rice and the Obama team to the wall. Peter King, the Grand Inquisitor of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, pledged to “investigate” and hold hearings. And that, said the commentariat, would be the end of Rice’s hopes to become the new Hillary.
Now, let’s take an unfashionable step back and examine the facts, such as they are. Rice did not make up the “spontaneous” story or have it handed to her by White House conspirators. She got it from the same daily intelligence brief given to the president. Those daily intel reports told the very story Rice repeated publicly, i.e., that the Benghazi mob formed more or less on its own, mainly in reaction to the American video cartooning sacred Muslim figures, and that extremists then took advantage to kill, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Rice didn’t make up that story. The problem was not with Rice; it was with the inevitably complicated U.S. intelligence process.
Her mistake was taking the initial intelligence at face value. The White House briefers made the same error, and so did I. I too repeated in an op-ed on The Daily Beast what the intelligence briefers told me, but I knew very well that more and contradictory information would appear soon enough. It always does.
Sure, the CIA had additional intel from the start, but it hadn’t begun to sift through all the communications intercepts, satellite photos, and human reports. It always takes time to sort out facts from fictions and find consistent threads. Seemingly, this gossamer information is now taking shape.
Meantime, Rice is still very much in the running for the job at Foggy Bottom, along with Senator John Kerry, NSC Adviser Tom Donilon, and former diplomat Nicholas Burns, now of Harvard. She was Obama’s earliest loyalist in the foreign-policy crowd, and he still likes her, despite lackluster reports on her performance at the U.N. The smears, though flatly inaccurate, won’t help her either. What will help her and, more importantly a flagging Obama after the first debate, is hunting down the Benghazi culprits.
Why did it take eight days for the administration to acknowledge the 9/11 attacks in Benghazi were acts of terrorism? An unclassified briefing document provides new clues, writes Eli Lake.
For eight days after the attacks on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, government officials said the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film. Now that officials have acknowledged they were a premeditated act of terrorism, the question some members Congress are trying to answer is why it took so long for the truth to come out.
Unclassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency suggest the answer may have to do with so-called talking points written by the CIA and distributed to members of Congress and other government officials, including Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The documents, distributed three days after the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, said the events were spontaneous.
The talking points say, among other things, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
President Obama addresses Libyan attacks.
In addition, the briefing says this “assessment may change as additional information is collected” and that the “investigation is on-going.”
The theory that the attacks were spontaneous was echoed by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Sept. 14, just three days after the attacks, and again on Sept. 16 by Ambassador Rice. On Sept. 18, Carney said, “Based on information that we—our initial information, and that includes all information—we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a preplanned or premeditated attack.”
The intelligence that helped inform those talking points—and what the U.S. public would ultimately be told—came in part from an intercept of a phone call between one of the alleged attackers and a middle manager from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s north African affiliate, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intercept. In the call, the alleged attacker said the locals went forward with the attack only after watching the riots that same day at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
U.S. President Barack Obama watches as a casket is placed into a hearse during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony for the return of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Libyan embassy employees September 14. 2012 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Stevens and the three other embassy employees were killed when the consulate in Libya was attacked September 11. (Molly Riley-Pool / Getty Images)
New Yorker correspondent Ryan Lizza can't believe the scrutiny Susan Rice is facing as a potential nominee for Secretary of State. 'She has launched a political campaign to save her reputation...before she's even nominated,' he tells Spin Cycle's Howard Kurtz.
A diplomat under fire.
Sources say the attack on the Libyan ambassador was pre-meditated, with the possible collaboration of a Libyan politician. Eli Lake on the continuing collapse of the official U.S. line.
Ambassador Rice defends America's power abroad, Libya’s president says the embassy attacks were planned & more Sunday talk.