To be clear: There are not three scandals plaguing the Obama White House. The IRS situation is probably a scandal. The AP subpoena is maybe a scandal. Scandal is a subjective term, after all, but it's clear that the standard should be higher than "political opponents making unfounded accusations." Which is, after a brief flurry of evidence that fell apart, what Benghazi still looks like. By embracing the leaked talking points, Obama's opponents may have taken Benghazi off the table completely.
Conspiracy advocates were about 12 miles down the track on Benghazi even before ABC News released the talking point drafts implying an administration cover up. Now we know that they were someone's notes on the emails, not the original text, and the White House has now released the email chain. But when the ABC News story went up, opponents of Obama (and Hillary Clinton) seized on them as definitive, as evidence that the White House and State Department colluded to obscure the truth of what happened. After weeks of throwing things at the wall, something stuck. And that was exciting.
On Monday, Dick Cheney offered his analysis to Sean Hannity.
They lied. They claimed it was because of a demonstration video, that they wouldn’t have to admit it was really all about their incompetence. They ignored repeated warnings from the CIA about the threat. They ignored messages from their own people on the ground that they needed more security.
Each of Cheney's claims can now be rebutted. "They," meaning the White House, didn't claim the attack was the result of a demonstration video; the full set of emails shows that came from the CIA. There's no evidence that "they" ignored repeated warnings — though that issue did come up. "They" didn't ignore messages from "their own people on the ground" about the need for more security; their man on the ground, Ambassador Stevens who perished in the attack, declined offers to provide exactly that.
But when the notes on the emails were revealed — by some as-yet unidentified party willing to gloss over their specifics — the focus of most (but not all) Republican objections became the development of the White House talking points.
On Monday, before the entire email chain was released by the White House, here's how Carney described the White House and State Department's role.
Jay Carney was wrong. There wasn't only one change that the White House and State Department wanted to have made to the Benghazi talking points. Yes, Jake Sullivan from State wanted to change "consulate" to "U.S. mission." But he also wanted to add a missing "of." And the White House's national security spokesman weighed in, too, asking that the word "Cairo" be added. Copy editing is not yet at the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The State Department's Victoria Nuland did want broader changes, as ABC's source highlighted. She wanted to ensure that claims of Al Qaeda involvement wouldn't "prejudice the investigation," and she wanted to ensure that one point the CIA included, noting prior warnings of an attack, wouldn't be used to "beat the State Department." Those concerns ended up being reflected in the document — but were only removed when CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell pared down the talking points to only include broadly accurate statements about what had occurred.
A senior administration official said that Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell agreed with Nuland's concerns and made the changes himself. There is no email record, however, showing that Morrell shared Nuland's concerns.
Carney's statement was clearly inaccurate and probably misleading. But it's also defensible in a pedantic sense: State's concerns certainly influenced the CIA, but the only direct changes reflected by administration suggestions were fairly minor.
(It's also worth noting that the email chain also exonerates Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out. Rice, who was not nominated to be Secretary of State because of a furor over her delivering the final talking points on Sunday chat shows, only received a draft of the talking points after Morrell's edits, and offered little input.)
State wasn't the only agency that offered feedback. The day before Morell gutted the talking points, the FBI raised questions about the CIA's inclusion of "social media reports calling for a demonstration" — in other words, whether or not the YouTube video inspired the attacks. This change was critical.
Most of the coordination on changes for the talking points were led by the CIA, the same agency that originally led on developing the talking points. After Morrell's substantive changes, then-CIA head David Petraeus complained about the omission of a cable sent from Cairo to Benghazi. That cable was a warning about protests over the YouTube video. In other words, the FBI's suggestion may have saved the CIA some embarrassment.
The cable was also one of the threat warnings issued by the CIA that Cheney argued should have been heeded. Cheney's enthusiasm was understandable and widely shared. After months of attempts to show that the administration behaved inappropriately on Benghazi, here was something tangible, something that could be held up at a press conference and pointed to. Some mathematical: two suggestions, one set of talking points. But it wasn't smoke coming out of the gun, it was steam.
Now, with the release of the broader set of emails, Republicans are back to playing defense, which, of course, is why the White House released them. Obama's opponents were waiting for the facts to catch up with them on Benghazi. The release of the talking points may instead have derailed them.
I hope my friends in the media will realize they were fed a false bill of goods by Republicans on Benghazi. Be more skeptical next time.— Senator Harry Reid (@SenatorReid) May 16, 2013