A revelation from CNN's Jake Tapper raises significant questions about the motivations of the source for ABC's story last Friday revealing draft talking points in response to the attack in Benghazi. Tapper got a complete copy of an email cited by ABC which shows that the latter's excerpt misrepresents the concerns of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
In its original report, ABC runs through the changes in each version of the talking points, noting where State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland had interjected to change the language. The impression given was that the State Department wanted to change politically damaging revelations — though an update to the ABC story includes a response from State indicating that the corrections were mostly for security purposes.
ABC also noted an email from Rhodes:
In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. — three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows – Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department’s concerns needed to be addressed.
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”
The email acquired by Tapper, visible below, has the same timestamp but a much different message. It reads:
Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.
There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.
That's a significant difference, changing the perception that the State Department (and the administration) was protecting itself into one that implies that Rhodes' goal was to ensure correct information went out. Republicans have consistently attacked the State Department, then led by likely 2016 Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, for obfuscating the details of the attack. The Rhodes email could offer some measure of exoneration.
If it's applicable. It is not clear that the ABC story (and a similar story in the Weekly Standard) refers to the same email. While the timestamp is the same, the recipients for the ABC message aren't indicated. It's possible that Rhodes sent similar messages to different people on the same topic — though the CNN message includes Nuland and other relevant parties.
Who leaked the documents to ABC and the Weekly Standard isn't public, though the latter outlet says that the "exchange of emails is laid out in a 43-page report from the chairmen of five committees in the House of Representatives." If the email being referred to by ABC is the same as the email found by Tapper, it raises the question of the point at which the inaccurate summary and its errors were introduced. If the full report was given to ABC, and if it didn't include the full email, that implies that the inaccuracies stemmed from the creators of the report.
The update to the original ABC story also notes that Nuland's goal in revising the talking points was to tamp down what she saw as blame-shifting by the CIA. One of the key subtexts of the leak has been the conflict between the two agencies, something pointed out regularly on social media and (somewhat inelegantly) by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois yesterday. The Rhodes email was almost certainly released by the White House in order to curtail the ongoing furor over the talking points — and it could help bolster the State Department's position in the dispute over who bears the most blame for incomplete information being released in the aftermath of the attack.
The obvious next step is for ABC to detail how it got the information that led to its possibly incorrect summary of Rhodes' email. We'll update this post when it does.
Update, 3:42 p.m.: Here it is. In a statement to the Washington Post, a spokesman for ABC says, "Assuming the email cited by Jake Tapper is accurate, it is consistent with the summary quoted by [ABC reporter] Jon Karl."
Regardless of your opinion about that consistency, the spokesman's verbiage does seem to imply that Karl was not the originator of the summary.
Update 4:48 p.m.: ABC's Karl offered a more full explanation of the difference in a blog post this afternoon. Karl says he was "quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes" for his description. The source was not allowed to make copies of the original email. Karl also defends the original representation.
I asked my original source today to explain the different wording on the Ben Rhodes e-mail, and the fact that the words “State Department” were not included in the e-mail provided to CNN’s Tapper.
This was my source’s response, via e-mail: “WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.”
Update, 2:00 p.m.: At the end of his daily briefing today, which he began by addressing ""the clear political circus that Benghazi has become," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said:
Much unreported is that many of the iterations of these talking points ... contain changes from within the CIA. In the end what was produced by the CIA was both a view of the agencies involved but most importantly what the CIA felt at the top….
There was an effort here — a focus here, and elsewhere — on making sure what we said as an administration... was as accurate as it could be. There was a lot of misinformation... but it's the job of the intelligence community in this case to filter through this.
Carney also accused "Republicans who were leaking these emails" of "fabricat[ing] portions of an email, and make up portions of an email in order to fit a political narrative."
Photo: National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, left, listens to Rhodes at a press conference. (AP)