Today at the White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney, as Andrew Stiles noted below, offered a variety of interesting explanations for the Obama administration’s behavior following the Benghazi attacks. Perhaps the most jesuitical moments, though, were when Carney stood by his statement from November that only one, very minor change had been made to the CIA-written talking points Ambassador Susan Rice used on her September 16 Sunday-show appearances. As ABC News revealed in great detail today, and The Weekly Standard began to explain earlier this week, that’s not really true: The State Department, in particular spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, asked for massive changes to the talking points after the CIA first drafted them. But Carney insisted to reporters today that this was consistent with what he said in November because, indeed, the White House’s one “stylistic edit” (specifically, changing the description of the U.S. compound attacked from a “consulate,” which it technically wasn’t) was made to a CIA talking-points draft. The only problem, of course, is that the CIA talking-points draft to which the White House made such lilliputian changes was vastly different than what the CIA actually had originally written.
As Jon Karl of ABC put it, “Jay, you told us that the only changes that were made were stylistic. Is it a stylistic change to take out all references to previous terror threats in Benghazi?”
Carney replies, “What I was referring to were the talking points that the CIA drafted and sent around, to which one change was made, and I accept that stylistic may not precisely describe the change of one word to another . . .” But Carney, by saying “the talking points that the CIA drafted and sent around” is trying to suggest that the White House’s change was made to the intelligence community’s original suggestions of what should be said, when in fact the intelligence community’s draft was now, it seems, basically what the State Department wanted said. He’s technically not lying, but he takes serious pains to avoid admitting just how much the talking points were changed from what the intelligence community suggested.
This is made most obvious when Carney spars with CNN’s Jim Acosta about the same issue, and explains that the White House’s suggested edits were made to the talking points the CIA wrote “on Saturday morning” — after being told what to write by the State Department over the course of the preceding days. The White House, in effect, made only a minor change not to something composed by the CIA itself, but to a “draft” shaped by the wishes of the State Department; the CIA seems to have written the final talking points the White House approved in the sense that a copy editor writes articles.
As Andrew Koppelman puts it at The New Yorker (!), ”this is an incredible thing for Carney to be saying. He’s playing semantic games, telling a roomful of journalists that the definition of editing we’ve all been using is wrong, that the only thing that matters is who’s actually working the keyboard. It’s not quite re-defining the word ‘is,’ or the phrase ’sexual relations,’ but it’s not all that far off, either.”
Carney repeatedly suggests that references to Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda affiliates were removed because the facts weren’t sufficiently supported yet. On the face of it, it’s unclear why the intelligence community, if, as Carney suggests, they were merely deciding to cut out information that couldn’t be confirmed, wouldn’t also have excised the claim that the attacks had come out of a protest. Rice’s testimony on the Sunday shows directly contradicted the explanation the Libyan president had put forth just before her, that it had been a pre-planned attack and obviously not spontaneous – if this was about caution, getting the facts right, and diplomatic delicacy, it’s odd that she’d contradict him without knowing for sure. (In addition, as Stephen Hayes explains at The Weekly Standard, it’s not like the evidence that Ansar al-Sharia was responsible was weak at all — and on the one hand, people deserve to know who was responsible, but you could see how naming culprits would be a risky decision.)
Carney offered no explanation of why State felt that certain elements of the intelligence community’s assessment weren’t reliable, while some were. One explanation for the distinction insisted upon by the State Department, indeed, one put forth by Victoria Nuland, is that the excising of certain parts of the talking points was an attempt to protect State from interagency criticism over its lax security and poor handling of warnings, rather than protecting the Obama administration itself (Nuland, for one, is a civil servant and not an Obama political appointee). Obviously, though, there could be any number of interests at play, including the Obama admistration’s wanting its State Department, foreign policy, and counterterrorism work to look good, too. (Another explanation State put forth for cutting the Ansar al-Sharia and AQ angles specifically is that they were reluctant to mention certain groups because they didn’t ”want to prejudice the investigation.”)
But one caveat: A CIA official e-mails Foreign Policy saying that, in fact, they did agree with State’s edits and weren’t just bowing to political pressure, and it was a normal, legitimate process of cutting out things that can’t yet be made public:
“The changes don’t reflect a turf battle,” said the official. “They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation.”
Interestingly, the official went on to defend Nuland’s request that references to al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia be erased from the CIA’s original talking points.
“Overall, the changes were made to address intelligence and legal issues,” said the official. “First, the information about individuals linked to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources. Second, when early links are tenuous, it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions and reporting. Finally, it is important to take care not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages.”
Obviously, though, the CIA has any number of reasons for claiming, “of course we agree with everything that we produce, we weren’t just doing State’s bidding,” even if reality was in fact different.