‘There’s No There There’

Obama on Benghazi

THE BLOG

Obama on Benghazi: ‘There’s No There There’

12:07 PM, MAY 13, 2013 • BY DANIEL HALPER

At a press conference today at the White House, President Obama said “There’s no there there” on criticism of how his administration handled the Benghazi terror attack:

“And suddenly three days ago this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story,” Obama said in response to a question about Benghazi. “There’s no there there.”

The president continued, “Keep in mind by the way these so-called talking points that were prepared for Susan Rice, five, six days after the event occurred, pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time in my presidential daily briefing.”

OOPS!  There is some there there.

The Benghazi Scandal Grows

The State Department, the CIA, the White House . . .

MAY 20, 2013, VOL. 18, NO. 34 • BY STEPHEN F. HAYES

CIA director David Petraeus was surprised when he read the freshly rewritten talking points an aide had emailed him in the early afternoon of Saturday, September 15. One day earlier, analysts with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis had drafted a set of unclassified talking points policymakers could use to discuss the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. But this new version​—​produced with input from senior Obama administration policymakers​—​was a shadow of the original.

WhistleblowersANDREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES/LANDOV

The original CIA talking points had been blunt: The assault on U.S. facilities in Benghazi was a terrorist attack conducted by a large group of Islamic extremists, including some with ties to al Qaeda.

These were strong claims. The CIA usually qualifies its assessments, providing policymakers a sense of whether the conclusions of its analysis are offered with “high confidence,” “moderate confidence,” or “low confidence.” That first draft signaled confidence, even certainty: “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.”

There was good reason for this conviction. Within 24 hours of the attack, the U.S. government had intercepted communications between two al Qaeda-linked terrorists discussing the attacks in Benghazi. One of the jihadists, a member of Ansar al Sharia, reported to the other that he had participated in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post. Solid evidence. And there was more. Later that same day, the CIA station chief in Libya had sent a memo back to Washington, reporting that eyewitnesses to the attack said the participants were known jihadists, with ties to al Qaeda.

Before circulating the talking points to administration policymakers in the early evening of Friday, September 14, CIA officials changed “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda” to simply “Islamic extremists.” But elsewhere, they added new contextual references to radical Islamists. They noted that initial press reports pointed to Ansar al Sharia involvement and added a bullet point highlighting the fact that the agency had warned about another potential attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in the region. “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.” All told, the draft of the CIA talking points that was sent to top Obama administration officials that Friday evening included more than a half-dozen references to the enemy​—​al Qaeda, Ansar al Sharia, jihadists, Islamic extremists, and so on.

The version Petraeus received in his inbox Saturday, however, had none. The only remaining allusion to the bad guys noted that “extremists” might have participated in “violent demonstrations.”

In an email at 2:44 p.m. to Chip Walter, head of the CIA’s legislative affairs office, Petraeus expressed frustration at the new, scrubbed talking points, noting that they had been stripped of much of the content his agency had provided. Petraeus noted with evident disappointment that the policymakers had even taken out the line about the CIA’s warning on Cairo. The CIA director, long regarded as a team player, declined to pick a fight with the White House and seemed resigned to the propagation of the administration’s preferred narrative. The final decisions about what to tell the American people rest with the national security staff, he reminded Walter, and not with the CIA.

This candid, real-time assessment from then-CIA director Petraeus offers a glimpse of what many intelligence officials were saying privately as top Obama officials set aside the truth about Benghazi and spun a fanciful tale about a movie that never mattered and a demonstration that never happened.

“The YouTube video was a nonevent in Libya,” said Gregory Hicks, a 22-year veteran diplomat and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli at the time of the attacks, in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on May 8. “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that there had been an attack on a consulate . . . no protest.”

So how did Jay Carney, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others come to sell the country a spurious narrative about a movie and a protest?

There are still more questions than answers. But one previously opaque aspect of the Obama administration’s efforts is becoming somewhat clearer. An email sent to Susan Rice following a key White House meeting where officials coordinated their public story lays out what happened in that meeting and offers more clues about who might have rewritten the talking points.

Republicans call for depositions in Benghazi probe, amid revelation Clinton barely interviewed.

hillary26n-1-web

Republicans call for depositions in Benghazi probe, amid revelation Clinton barely interviewed.

 

 

Congressional Republicans on Sunday pressed their investigation into the Benghazi attacks, suggesting depositions for high-ranking officials and more whistle-blowers testifying amid further questions about why then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was not thoroughly interviewed about the issue.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told “Fox News Sunday” that more potential and self-proclaimed “whistle-blowers” might come forward after three of them – career State Department foreign service employees – testified last week before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee.

“We have had people come forward because of the (hearing) and say we would also like to talk,” the Michigan Republican told “Fox News Sunday.” “I do think we’re going to see more whistle-blowers. Certainly my committee has been contacted; I think other committees as well.”

Rogers’ remarks came as Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador who helped write a report on security at a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, defended his assessment but absolved Clinton.

“We knew where the responsibility rested,” Pickering told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”  “They’ve tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made.”

Pickering said he and retired Adm. Mike Mullen had to work within the legal scope of the investigation and that they “knew and understood” Clinton’s role based upon “talking to other people at meetings.”

Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. outpost.

Benghazi Massacre Blog copy

Congressional Republicans have since led efforts to learn whether the Obama administration provided adequate security and if the explanation of events was altered as part of a possible political cover-up.

Among the lingering questions are whether Clinton was involved in changing a CIA memo about how the attacks started and was she at least partially responsible for the apparent lack of adequate security.

The Accountability and Review Board, led by Pickering and Mullen, did not question Clinton at length about the attacks but concluded the decisions about the consulate were made well below the secretary’s level.

However, Pickering’s defense Sunday of the panel’s conclusions appeared to do little to quiet Republicans’ calls for more accountability for the attacks, which killed Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith, and two embassy security personnel, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs.

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” he would like to interview under oath Pickering and Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein told NBC that Congress’ review seems aimed at discrediting Clinton and her potential 2016 presidential bid.

Pickering and Mullen’s report, released in December, found that “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” of the State Department meant that security was “inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”

The House oversight committee hearing last week included testimony from Gregory Hicks, a former deputy chief of mission to Libya.

Hicks, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower, detailed his phone conversations from Tripoli with Stevens, who died during the two nighttime attacks.

Hicks and two other State Department witnesses criticized the Pickering and Mullen review. Their complaints centered on a report they consider incomplete, with individuals who weren’t interviewed and a focus on the assistant secretary level and lower.

The hours-long hearing produced no major revelation but renewed interest in the attacks that happened during the lead-up to the November 2012 presidential election.

Five days after the attacks, in the final weeks of President Obama’s re-election bid, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice went on Sunday talk shows and said the attacks were “spontaneous” and sparked by protests elsewhere in the Middle East over an anti-Islamic video.

However, new reports show the original CIA memo on the incident was scrubbed of the mention of “Islamic militants” and early intelligence about Al Qaeda in the region.

The series of emails that circulated between the State Department and the CIA led to weakened — and, in some cases, wrong — language that Rice used to describe the assault.

Issa also said he will on Monday request private testimonies from Pickering and Mullen and that his oversight panel has not been provided sufficient details on the State Department review.

Pickering, who was sitting next to Issa during “Meet the Press,” said he wanted to appear at the Republican-led hearing Wednesday but was blocked.

Issa said Democrats could have invited their own witnesses, such as Pickering, but did not.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Sunday renewed congressional Republicans’ call for a House select committee on Benghazi — like the one used to investigate Watergate — and called the Obama administration’s handling of the terror attacks “a cover-up.”

“I would call it a cover-up in the extent that there was willful removal of information, which was obvious,” McCain said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Peggy Noonan: The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi

Peggy Noonan: The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi

Did the Obama administration’s politically expedient story cost American lives?

  • By PEGGY NOONAN

Columnist's name

The Benghazi story until now has been a jumble of factoids that didn’t quite cohere, didn’t produce a story that people could absorb and hold in their minds. This week that changed. Three State Department officials testifying under oath to a House committee changed it, by adding information that gave form to a growing picture. Gregory Hicks, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom were authoritative and credible. You knew you were hearing the truth as they saw and experienced it. Not one of them seemed political. You had no sense of how they voted. They were professionals. They’d seen a bad thing. They came forward to tell the story. They put the lie to the idea that all questioning of Obama administration actions in Benghazi are partisan and low.

What happened in Benghazi last Sept. 11 and 12 was terrible in every way. The genesis of the scandal? It looks to me like this:

The Obama White House sees every event as a political event. Really, every event, even an attack on a consulate and the killing of an ambassador.

Because of that, it could not tolerate the idea that the armed assault on the Benghazi consulate was a premeditated act of Islamist terrorism. That would carry a whole world of unhappy political implications, and demand certain actions. And the American presidential election was only eight weeks away. They wanted this problem to go away, or at least to bleed the meaning from it.

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Getty ImagesGregory Hicks, a State Department foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission/charge d’affairs in Libya, during Wednesday’s congressional hearing on Benghazi.

Because the White House could not tolerate the idea of Benghazi as a planned and deliberate terrorist assault, it had to be made into something else. So they said it was a spontaneous street demonstration over an anti-Muhammad YouTube video made by a nutty California con man. After all, that had happened earlier in the day, in Cairo. It sounded plausible. And maybe they believed it at first. Maybe they wanted to believe it. But the message was out: Provocative video plus primitive street Arabs equals sparky explosion. Not our fault. Blame the producer! Who was promptly jailed.

If what happened in Benghazi was not a planned and prolonged terrorist assault, if it was merely a street demonstration gone bad, the administration could not take military action to protect Americans there. You take military action in response to a planned and coordinated attack by armed combatants. You don’t if it’s an essentially meaningless street demonstration that came and went.

Why couldn’t the administration tolerate the idea that Benghazi was a planned terrorist event? Because they didn’t want this attack dominating the headline with an election coming. It would open the administration to criticism of its intervention in Libya. President Obama had supported overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi and put U.S. force behind the Libyan rebels. Now Libyans were killing our diplomats. Was our policy wrong? More importantly, the administration’s efforts against al Qaeda would suddenly come under scrutiny and questioning. The president, after the killing ofOsama bin Laden, had taken to suggesting al Qaeda was over. Al Qaeda was done. But if an al Qaeda offshoot in Libya was killing our diplomats, the age of terrorism was not over.

The Obama White House didn’t want any story that might harm, get in the way of or lessen the extent of the president’s coming victory. The White House probably anticipated that Mitt Romney would soon attempt to make points with Benghazi. And indeed he did pounce, too quickly, the very next morning, giving a statement that was at once aggressive and forgettable, as was his wont.

The president’s Republican challenger was looking for gain and didn’t find it. But here’s the thing. More is expected from the president than mere politics. That’s why we tend to re-elect them. A sitting president is supposed to be bigger, weightier, more serious than his rival.

This week’s testimony from Messrs. Hicks, Thompson and Nordstrom was clarifying, to say the least.

Mr. Hicks, deputy chief of mission at the time of the attack, said the YouTube video was never an event in Libya, and no one in Benghazi or Tripoli saw what was happening as a spontaneous street protest. Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, sent an email on Sept. 12 saying: “The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” Mr. Hicks himself said he spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. Benghazi time the day after the attack and told her it was a planned attack, not a street protest.

Still, the administration stuck to its story and sent out Susan Rice—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., someone with no direct connection to the event—to go on the Sunday talk shows and insist it was all about a video. They sent someone who could function as a mouther of talking points, someone who was told what to say and could be relied upon to say it. Mr. Hicks said that when he saw what Ms. Rice said his jaw dropped.

All of this is bad enough. Far worse is the implied question that hung over the House hearing, and that cries out for further investigation. That is the idea that if the administration was to play down the nature of the attack it would have to play down the response—that is, if you want something to be a nonstory you have to have a nonresponse. So you don’t launch a military rescue operation, you don’t scramble jets, and you have a rationalization—they’re too far away, they’ll never make it in time. This was probably true, but why not take the chance when American lives are at stake?

Mr. Hicks told the compelling story of his talk with the leader of a special operations team that wanted to fly to Benghazi from Tripoli to help. The team leader was told to stand down, and he was enraged. Mark Thompson wanted an emergency support team sent to the consulate and was confounded when his superiors in Washington would not agree.

Was all this incompetence? Or was it politics disguised as the fog of war? Who called these shots and made these decisions? Who decided to do nothing?

From the day of the attack until this week, the White House spin was too clever by half. In the weeks and months after the attack White House spokesmen said they were investigating the story, an internal review was under way. When the story blew open again, last week, they said it was too far in the past: “Benghazi happened a long time ago.” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, really said that.

Think of that. They can’t give answers when the story’s fresh because it just happened, they’re looking into it. Eight months later they don’t have anything to say because it all happened so long ago.

Think of how low your opinion of the American people has to be to think you can get away, forever, with that.

Will this story ever be completely told? Maybe not. But it’s not going to go away, either. It’s a prime example of the stupidity of all-politics-all-the-time. You make some bad moves for political reasons. And then you suffer politically because you made bad moves.