How the Benghazi 'Attack' Became a 'Demonstration'

Today Dave Weigel focused on a question that ought to be getting more attention than it has. Where did we get the idea that there was a protest in Benghazi? To answer that question we have to parse the talking points carefully. Here’s what Amb. Susan Rice said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sep. 16th:

SUSAN RICE: Soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our
consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements,
individuals, joined in that– in that effort with heavy weapons of the
sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya
post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much
more violent.

Notice that the words “spontaneous protest” refer to Benghazi. That’s actually not quite what the final talking points said, but it’s close. But first let’s look at version 1 of the talking points, before Victoria Nuland and her unnamed superiors at the State Dept. (and the White House) got involved [Emphasis added]:

We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in
Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy
in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate
and subsequently its annex.

 Notice that in the talking point above (version 1) “the attacks in Benghazi” are “spontaneously inspired” by the “protests” which took place in Cairo, Egypt. So the words spontaneous and protests are there, but referring to two different parts of the world. Now have a look at version 2 of the talking points from Sep. 15, 2012. [Emphasis added]:

The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate
and subsequently its annex.

The word “attacks” has been replaced by the word “demonstrations.” Now it’s the demonstrations that are spontaneous. Meanwhile the “protests” are still in Cairo. This word choice was maintained in version 3 of the talking points. What Amb. Rice did on Face the Nation was conflate demonstrations with protests. So a spontaneous demonstration became a spontaneous protest.

Why does any of this matter? Because of what happened in between version 1 and version 2. The Weekly Standard story which described the evolution of the talking points makes clear that the revision began after political considerations entered the discussion from high levels within the State Department and the White House:

The talking points were first distributed to officials in the
interagency vetting process at 6:52 p.m. on Friday. Less than an hour
later, at 7:39 p.m., an individual identified in the House report only
as a “senior State Department official” responded to raise “serious
concerns” about the draft. That official, whom The Weekly Standard has
confirmed was State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, worried that
members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State
Department for “not paying attention to Agency warnings.”

In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all
references to Ansar al Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up
email at 9:24 p.m., Nuland wrote that the problem remained and that her
superiors–she did not say which ones–were unhappy. The changes, she
wrote, did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building
leadership,” and State Department leadership was contacting National
Security Council officials directly. Moments later, according to the
House report, “White House officials responded by stating that the State
Department’s concerns would have to be taken into account.” One
official–Ben Rhodes, The Weekly Standard is told, a top adviser to
President Obama on national security and foreign policy–further advised
the group that the issues would be resolved in a meeting of top
administration officials the following morning at the White House.

As pointed out yesterday, there is some evidence that people in Benghazi were aware of the You Tube video and the attack may or may not have been spontaneous. So it’s at least arguable that the first version of the talking point was accurate. However, there is longstanding evidence suggesting there was never any demonstration in Benghazi. For instance, on September 13, two days before the talking points were revised by the White House, the NY Times published an account given by two guards who were wounded in the attack that night:

Two Libyans who were wounded while guarding the consulate said that,
contrary to Mr. Sharif’s account, there was no indication within the
consulate grounds that a mass protest, including members of armed
groups, had been brewing outside. The guards spoke on condition of
anonymity for their personal safety, and one of them said he realized
the dangers only about 9:30 p.m., when protesters crashed through the
gate and “started shooting and throwing grenades.” The other guard said
that he had been drinking coffee inside the compound just before the
attack, and that it was so quiet “there was not even a single ant.”

Was the State Department aware of this on Sep. 13th? If so, why did they replace “attacks” with “demonstrations” two days later?

It appears that one of the major errors introduced into the talking points (contra Weigel, it was not something that was there all along) was introduced after political considerations were raised by high level individuals in the State Department and the White House.


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