In an unusual display of disunity, State Department officials have disowned remarks by one of their top officials, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, regarding her explanation of the deadly terrorist assault on U.S. diplomats in Libya in September. Not only did they say Rice's characterization of those attacks as "spontaneous" was wrong, but also, they said that assessment was never the conclusion of the State Department at any point in time.
In a conference call to reporters on Tuesday, senior State Department officials said they couldn't explain why Rice went on a Sunday talk show blitz last month describing the Benhazi attacks as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film in the U.S. "That was not our conclusion," the officials said. "That is the question you'd have to ask others."
In the Rice version of events, the attacks that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans began as an anti-film demonstration and devolved into a deadly assault. But State Department officials say there was no anti-film demonstration. "Everything is calm at 8:30 p.m., there is nothing unusual. There had been nothing unusual during the day outside," officials told reporters Tuesday. "Then at 9:40 they saw on the security cameras that there were armed men invading the compound."
In contrast, Rice said this on NBC's Meet the Press on Sept. 16: "Our current assessment is what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video." That's a view she repeated on CBS and Fox News.
Why does this matter? First, it raises some immediate questions. Why was Rice repeatedly spreading misinformation about the attacks in Libya that her own department never substantiated? According to Rice, she got her information from the intelligence community, not the State Department. Why, then, was the intelligence community so ill-informed? That's not clear. On Sept. 28, intelligence officials confessed to misinforming administration officials, but said they were simply providing the latest assessments of what happened. So, in essence, U.S. intelligence of the incident evolved over time. In some respects, that seems like a fair point: They call it the fog of war for a reason. In other respects, it's unsatisfying. Why did it take so long for the administration to acknowledge there was no anti-film protest? Weeks before correcting the record, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS News had been interviewing witnesses on the scene who said there was no anti-film protest. If witnesses said there were no protests, why didn't U.S. intelligence account for that?
And why, in particular, does it matter that this wasn't a response to anti-film protests? First, it's important to know the truth surrounding the deaths of American personnel. Second, it's about holding the Obama administration accountable, as The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald noted last month. "The claim that this attack was just about anger over an anti-Muhammad video completely absolves the U.S. government of any responsibility or even role in provoking the anti-American rage driving it," he wrote. "After all, if the violence that erupted in that region is driven only by anger over some independent film about Muhammad, then no rational person would blame the U.S. government for it, and there could be no suggestion that its actions in the region—things like this, and this, and this, and this—had any role to play," referring to instances in which civilians were killed by U.S. forces. It also partially absolves the administration for inadequate diplomatic security. Will we get to the bottom of all these questions? Maybe, maybe not. But a House hearing to investigate some of them begins today and will likely involve an intriguing mix of ego, partisanship, and conflict.
Update: Whatever the beliefs of those State Department officials who spoke to reporters on Tuesday, the department's under secretary Patrick Kennedy gave a robust defense of Rice.
If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16th, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point. As time went on, additional information became available. Clearly, we know more today than we did on the Sunday after the attack. But as the process moves forward and more information becomes available, we will be sure to continue consulting with you.