Was there an embarrassing gaffe in Thursday night's debate? Vice President Biden gave a bungled and misleading answer about the situation in Benghazi in which he stated that "we" did not know security requests had been made. Biden's statement is being artfully spun this morning in a way that rescues the vice president from himself at the expense of the State Department and, quite possibly, the truth.
Here's the exchange which has the administration scrambling this morning:
RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why — why were
people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw
armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go
BIDEN: Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence
community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned
more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.
That’s why there’s also an investigation headed by Tom Pickering, a
leading diplomat from the Reagan years, who is doing an investigation as
to whether or not there are any lapses, what the lapses were, so that
they will never happen again.
RADDATZ: And they wanted more security there.
BIDEN: Well, we weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again.
In the first part of his answer, Biden blames the false statements made by Ambassador Susan Rice (and the President) on "the intelligence community." But as we've known for more than two weeks now, the intelligence community knew this was a terrorist attack, not a mob action prompted by a video, within 24 hours. How is it that the vice president is not familiar with this report? And why didn't Martha Raddatz bring it up and challenge Biden as she challenged Ryan repeatedly last night?
White House spokesman Jay Carney has defended the reaction to Benghazi by noting that the President called it an "act of terror" the day after the attack. So on the one hand, the White House is taking credit for getting this right almost immediately. On the other hand, Joe Biden goes on TV claiming the intelligence community didn't know what happened until sometime after the Susan Rice TV blitz five days later. As Joe Biden might say, they are literally having it both ways.
Rather than press Biden on any of these points, Raddatz shifted to the issue of requests for more security in Benghazi. This is where Biden unleashed his worst gaffe of the night, the "we weren't told" line about security requests. This statement is flatly at odds with information made public in Congress 24 hours previous, so how can Biden claim ignorance?
Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes was asked to clarify what Biden meant. He claims Biden was not speaking about the administration as a whole, only about his personal knowledge. In other words, the administration is now claiming that, yes of course, the State Department received multiple requests for additional security but those requests didn't reach Joe Biden or the President, hence "we weren't told."
There is actually no way to determine from the text of Biden's statement that he was speaking only for himself as, once again, Raddatz failed to get him to clarify. What we do know is that Ben Rhodes is an aide to the President advising him on foreign policy communications. He is not someone who is ever going to offer an opinion critical of his boss or the vice president. His job is to back them up. No surprise, then, that Rhodes seemed keen on framing everything in a way that suits the administration's political interests. Here's an excerpt:
The State Department security officials who
testified before House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's panel Wednesday never
said they had made their requests to the president, Rhodes pointed out. That
would be natural because the State Department is responsible for diplomatic
security, not the White House, he said. Rhodes also pointed out that the
officials were requesting more security in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
You can almost see Rhodes leaping to offer this series of excuses for why everything is the state department's fault, not that of his boss in the White House. Rhodes conveniently failed to mention that a security team in Tripoli might well have traveled to Benghazi with Ambassador Stevens had there been one in place. The claim that they would have been locked in Tripoli is another dodge designed to make the outcome of the attack seem inevitable and therefore something for which assigning blame is pointless.
So is this just spin by a White House flak, or was Biden really speaking about himself? Again, it's impossible to tell for certain based on the text, but consider that every time Biden makes a gaffe some administration official or other is trotted out to explain. This is what happened after Biden's "put y'all back in chains" comment in Virginia a few months ago. In that case, the President himself was asked about the comments by People magazine. In what many on the right and some on the left saw as an obvious cover for a gaffe, the President said Biden's statement was just a metaphor for finances.
If you accept the White House's self-serving explanation, you then have to ask yourself what Biden's point was. He's being asked about one of the biggest foreign policy blunders on his administration's watch, and his answer is (supposedly) that he personally didn't know. So, assuming the spin is true for argument's sake, is Biden suggesting things would have been handled differently if he and the President had known? If so, why hasn't anyone been fired or disciplined for doing the wrong thing? And why are State Department officials still defending the decision not to grant the security based on a lack of "actionable intelligence"?
This is what's most unbelievable about the spin on Biden's remarks. To accept the spin, you not only have to accept that information did not flow between the State Department and the White House in the months prior to the attack, you also have to believe information hasn't flowed from the White House to the State Department in the weeks since the attack. Obama and Biden "didn't know" about the multiple pleas for additional security then and the State Department doesn't know that the President and Biden think they should have approved them now.
If the fresh spin sounds a little implausible to you there is a simpler explanation, one that fits with everything we know about Joe Biden and the administration he works for. Biden made a big gaffe last night in the debate, and the administration is once again trying to give him some semblance of a plausible explanation for what he said. The question now is whether the media will roll with it like Martha Raddatz or ask some follow up questions.