The Conversation

Should Victoria Nuland (and Her Superiors) Be Let Off the Hook?

Jennifer Rubin says conservatives are confused about who deserves blame for the Benghazi talking points fiasco. According to Rubin, Ambassador Susan Rice deserves blame for giving the American people a false and misleading story on television, but State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, who helped craft the talking points, did nothing wrong.

Rubin's piece is itself somewhat confusing. She argues that Nuland knew all along the talking points were bogus, yet fails to explain why Nuland never mentioned this to anyone during the inter-agency process. Here is the core of Rubin's argument:

Nuland in a Sept. 12 background briefing told reporters the accurate account of the Benghazi attacks (going as far as she was able in calling it a “complex” attack, in contrast to the hooey about a spontaneous demonstration). No mention was made of the demonstration because there was none. When she got the talking points on Sept. 14 she was savvy enough to know it was nonsense. She knew there had been no demonstration, she spotted the false “warning” CIA said it gave to cover its rear-end on Benghazi (it never did) and she questioned why they were mentioning al -Qaeda when an investigation was ongoing and State had not been cleared to release that information. In other words, she refused to sign off on false talking points and kicked it to her superiors.

Rubin is right that Nuland had independent information available to her. She had given a detailed briefing to reporters two days earlier. However, in the email chain released by the White House, Nuland never contradicted the story about the spontaneous demonstration. Her first response, at 7:16pm, reads [emphasis added] "the line about 'knowing' there were extremists among the demonstrators will come back to us at the podium--how do we know, who were they, etc."

A little later in the thread, State's David Adams asks for clarification of "the nature of this exercise." Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman, says there is "massive disinformation" being spread to suggest the attack was "premeditated." He adds that there is "NSC guidance" that this point needs to be corrected with the media. In other words, the NSC wants the word out that the attack was spontaneous, not planned.

If ever there was a moment for Nuland to object to the spontaneous demonstration claim, this was it. Her response "Shdnt [the talking points] be consistent with our own public lines if we are recommending them?" She's referring back to her prior objections that the new talking points will allow "Members of Congress to start making assertions that we ourselves are not making." If Nuland was suspicious of the claim about demonstrations, why didn't she ever say so while the talking points were being crafted?

Getting back to Rubin's piece, she claims Nuland also spotted a false "warning" about Benghazi. A warning did appear in talking point #1 early on. It read "On September 10 we warned of social media reports calling for demonstration in front of Embassy Cairo." The word "warned" was removed after an objection by Shawn Turner who wrote, "I've been very careful not to say we issued a warning." Later, the FBI press office chimed in and questioned the accuracy of the entire claim. In any case, the warning in question was about a protest in Cairo, not about Benghazi.

The reason this is a bit confusing is that Victoria Nuland did use the word "warnings" in reference to a different part of the talking points she wanted removed. She wrote "the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings." She was referring to one of the talking points prepared by the CIA which read:

The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya.  These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy.

Nuland is saying these facts could be characterized by Congress as warnings, but the CIA never called them that. Given that the ARB report found security at the Benghazi compound was insufficient in light of the deteriorating security situation there, wasn't this information relevant? Indeed, had the American people known about these prior attacks, which were facts and not a matter of ongoing investigation, wouldn't they have had a better handle on what actually happened in Benghazi and why?

The State Department failed in Benghazi, that is no longer in question. Victoria Nuland acted in a way that protected her agency by concealing elements of that failure from the American people (albeit likely on orders from her superiors). Whatever the case, she should be held accountable for her role in confusing the public. By contrast, Susan Rice appears to have been a talking head who read the lines Nuland and others gave her to speak. That doesn't say much for Rice, but it certainly should not let Nuland--or those giving her direction--off the hook.


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