Blame the video, not the president’s foreign policy. That was the White House’s advice to Susan Rice as she prepared to appear on Sunday morning talk shows after the terrorist attack in Benghazi.
A newly released email collected by Judicial Watch in response to a FOIA request shows the White House pushed Ambassador Susan Rice to promote the idea that an internet video mocking Islam, not President Obama’s foreign policy, was responsible for attacks in the Middle East, including the one in Benghazi.
There has been much discussion of a set of talking points which were edited by the CIA at the State Department’s behest for use by Members of Congress. But there was another set of talking points being prepared at almost the same time for use by Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice appeared as a surrogate for Secretary of State Clinton on five separate Sunday morning news programs on September 16th, 2012.
On the Saturday prior to Rice’s appearance, the White House organized a conference call with a dozen press people including Jay Carney, David Plouffe, and Dan Pfeiffer. The purpose of the call was to prepare Rice for her appearance on all of the Sunday shows the following morning. In preparation for the conference call, White House adviser Ben Rhodes sent out a list of talking points Friday night with the subject “RE: PREP CALL with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 pm ET.”
The document opens with a section labeled “Goals” followed by four bullet points. These are not talking points per se, rather they are concepts the White House hoped Rice would communicate on television. Point one is “to convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad.”
Point two reads, “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Notice that this was framed as part of an either-or response. Either this was a failure of policy or it was the result of an internet video; the White House wanted Rice to make clear it was definitely the video that was to blame.
The other two goals also have to do with the president’s credibility, which the White House clearly worried was at jeopardy. Point three is a promise that the perpetrators will be brought to justice by a “resolute” administration. Point four is even more blunt, “To reinforce the President and Administration’s strengthand steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.” Four simplemessages Rice was to convey: We’re keeping our people safe. It was thevideo. We’ll get these guys. The president isstrong.
These messaging goals would in fact come through during Rice’s television appearances a few days later. Rice told Fox’s Chris Wallace “what sparked the recent violence was the airing on the internet of a very hateful, very offensive video.” She told CNN’s Candy Crowley, “There was a hateful video that was disseminated on the internet… That sparked violence in various parts of the world…” She told ABC’s Jake Tapper, “What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi and many other parts of the region… was a result, a direct result, of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated…” She gave similar answers to NBC’s David Gregory and CBS’s Bob Schieffer. In every case, the Benghazi attack was either framed as part of the response to the video or an attempt to replicate the Cairo response to the video.
In fact, later investigations made clear there was no protest similar to what took place in Cairo. The attack in Benghazi took place with no warning except for a guard caught taking photos of the compound earlier in the day. This incident led Sean Smith to tell a group of online gamers, “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking picture.”
There was other evidence available prior to Rice’s appearance on television on the 16th that indicated Benghazi was not a situation where a protest had gone wrong. The first word of the attack to the CIA Annex from one of the Diplomatic Security agents on scene was simply, “Benghazi under fire, terrorist attack.” There was also video of the compound which showed no one loitering prior to the attack. The FBI interviewed survivors of the attack in Germany a few days after the attack but supposedly hadn’t issued a report on their interviews prior to Rice’s statements.
The very first talking point in the list that follows (labeledjust Benghazi. It reads, “Since we began to see protests in response tothis internet video…” The administration was responding to protests in several countries, including the one in Egypt which led to people scaling the walls and hoisting a black flag over the compound.
Nevertheless, the messaging goals offer insight into how senior advisers in the White House saw the video as an important scapegoat, a way to direct public attention away from questions about the president’s foreign policy toward another cause. White House spokesman Jay Carney seemed to be working off the same script in his briefing on September 14th:
As we now know (as the administration should have known almost immediately), the truth about what had happened in Benghazi did not quite fit the mold. In fact, a more accurate account would have undercut the White House’s messaging goals. It would have shown the president to be flat-footed on security and perhaps suggested his push to oust Gaddafi by arming local militias had been a mistake. That in turn could have called into question previous decisions such as backing the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. The White House chose to emphasize the video to avoid these other questions.