The Administration's Talking Points Counter Scandal vs. Reality

The Obama administration has clearly decided it is too difficult to play defense on the I.R.S. scandal. They are now pushing a cooked up counter scandal in a blatant attempt to turn the tables on their accusers.

Ever since Steve Hayes first report on the edits made to the Benghazi talking points, the White House has been back on its heels. For several days it seemed they had no response except to ignore Hayes’ story in hopes it would go away.

It might have worked if not for Jonathan Karl who published an even more detailed account a few days later. At his next briefing, presidential spokesman Jay Carney took a grilling at the podium for his claim that the White House had made just one “stylistic” edit. As Karl’s report showed, the talking points had undergone a dozen changes until they were so thin on information as to be useless.

Four days later, someone within the White House leaked an email to Jake Tapper which was subtly different than previous reports had indicated. Karl and Hayes reported that White House adviser Ben Rhodes was concerned about the State Department’s take on the talking points. But the leaked email didn’t mention the State Department by name, just all agencies generally. The White House now had a way to push back, i.e. the emails had been “doctored.”

For anyone who has been paying attention to this White House for the past 5 years, this is standard operating procedure. Any video which reflects poorly on the administration has been “edited” and any quotes which paint them in a bad light have been “taken out of context.” The context inevitably winds up being some irrelevant side point that the administration can spin into a defense. We saw this on the ACORN videos, on “wise Latina,” on Jan Schakowsky’s statements about Obamacare putting an end to private insurance–if the administration can’t claim something is a distraction or old news, they claim it is out of context.

That was the goal of leaking (directly or indirectly) the full Rhodes email to Jake Tapper. It might have been convincing if pressure by Tapper, Karl and others hadn’t forced the White House to release the full chain of emails. Review of the full series of emails shows that the State Department was indeed the agency lobbying hard to pare down the Benghazi talking points. The fact that someone at CIA acted as their amanuensis doesn’t change who was responsible.

But the left-wing media immediately latched on to the counter-scandal and began whipping it into a frenzy. Josh Marshall took a fairly straightforward report by Major Garrett and claimed it was “epic” because it pointed out the differences between the reported email and the one leaked to Jake Tapper.

Tommy Christopher at Mediaite also jumped on the story, claiming State Dept. spokesperson Victoria Nuland’s concerns about Congress and the media were “tertiary.” In Christopher’s view the real headline was Jonathan Karl’s mistake and the fact that he now owed the White House an apology.

Christopher’s piece at least had a fair point about Karl’s improper use of quotations in the original story. But by the next day the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky–whose stock in trade is outrage at conservatives–upped the ante claiming the emails were “fabricated.” According to Tomasky “ABC News, if you ask me, has had a worse week than Obama.”

The same day, Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire claimed the Tapper story had revealed the entire talking points issue to be a “fake scandal” and claimed that someone had “lied” to Karl.

The administration then jumped on the bandwagon they had kicked off. Over the weekend a Democratic congressman referred to the “doctored” emails. And in his appearance on Face the Nation White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer claimed “that’s a very serious offense that happened where Republicans on the Hill, who we voluntarily provided these emails too, took one of them, doctored it and gave it to ABC News to smear the President.”

Pfeiffer’s statement is a lie. The White House did not provide emails to anyone until last week. What they did do is brief a few people but refuse to let them make or keep copies of the relevant emails. Reporting by Hayes and Karl was based on notes because, by the White House’s own choosing, that is all that was available.

More broadly, Jonathan Karl’s report on the changes made to the Benghazi talking points was detailed and significant. The fact that a couple words about the State Department didn’t appear in the actual emails would be significant if it gave a misleading impression (even unintentionally) about what was being discussed. In fact it did not and the thrust of Karl’s story was entirely accurate.

As reported last week, the CIA summed up the situation at 9:15pm on September 14th, writing “The State Department had major reservations with much or most of the document. We revised the document with their concerns in mind.” But State Department spokesperson Victoria still wasn’t satisfied nor was her “building leadership.” Another State employee chimed in to reassure her “Talked to Tommy [Vietor, NSS spokesman]–we can make edits.”

And contrary to claim that State’s concerns about the media were “tertiary” the emails released say otherwise. An email from Sep. 15th says “I spoke to the Director earlier about State’s deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this…”

These are the emails which ought to be getting attention from last week’s release. Instead, the administration and the left-wing media is trying to deflect attention from what really happened by inventing a conspiracy theory about doctored emails. It is another transparent attempt to avoid responsibility and should lead to further embarrassment for the White House.


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