Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes isn’t afraid to talk to the press. After the Navy SEAL raid in which Osama bin Laden died, he spoke to The New Yorker, Newsweek, the Washington Post, National Journal, and Vanity Fair — at least. He also helped coordinate access for the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty.
He recently cooperated with a New York Times profile of himself, and his mother, Jane Rhodes, answered questions for a GQ feature about him and his brother, CBS News President David Rhodes — the byline of which included Ben’s former White House colleague Reid Cherlin.
But when Fox News camped out on his doorstep to interview him about his role in scrubbing the infamous Benghazi talking points of key information about the attack, all they got was a shot walking into his apartment complex, his dry cleaning slung over his shoulder.
It’s a contrast that extends more broadly than just to Rhodes. Cataloguing public information about the bin Laden raid is a somewhat overwhelming task — there’s just so much of it. Meanwhile, almost nothing is known about President Obama’s actions on the night of the Benghazi attack. A top adviser dismissed the president’s location that night as a “largely irrelevant fact” on Fox News Sunday.
We know the exact number of minutes (38) the SEAL team was inside the Abbottabad compound. We know the exact time (8:20 p.m. on Friday, April 29, 2011) that President Obama authorized the raid. We know what the SEALs relayed over the radio to notify Washington that bin Laden had been killed, and we know that Obama “pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him,’” according to a New Yorker article that benefited from extensive cooperation by the White House.
We know that Vice President Joe Biden was thumbing a rosary in the Situation Room. We know that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a cold. Thanks to photographs taken by the official White House photographer and released to the public, we know exactly who was in the room, what everyone was wearing, and the expressions they had on their face.
At midnight, the night of the raid, senior White House officials held a briefing for select reporters to provide details. In the following days, then–CIA director Leon Panetta, then–White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, and then–deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough all filled the television airwaves. Three days after the raid, Obama himself invited Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes into the Oval Office for a chat (sample question: “Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your presidency?”).
The total information known publicly about Obama’s actions on the evening of September 11, 2012: He was told about the Benghazi attack at a previously scheduled 5:00 p.m. meeting with Biden and Panetta, and he spoke with Clinton at 10:00 p.m. by phone. He also spoke to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently for an hour, but not about Benghazi, according to reports.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who is investigating the matter, told National Review earlier this week: “From what we can tell, he went to the residence,” the emphasis being on “from what we can tell.”
Obama’s phone call with Clinton is known only because CNS News pestered Obama spokesman Jay Carney and the State Department for information earlier this year.
It appears that shortly after her phone call with Obama, Clinton released a statement blaming the attack on “inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” However, only an approximate time of their phone call was provided, so the timeline is murky.
The following day, Obama delivered a statement on the attack at the White House and then met with Clinton at the State Department before departing to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser.
Is it fair to compare the two instances? Certainly they are different circumstances. Killing the world’s most notorious terrorist is a cause for celebration. A terrorist attack on an American diplomatic facility in Libya was a terrible event. It’s only natural that politicians try to publicize the details of events that put them in a good light.
However, it’s not simply that the White House hasn’t volunteered information about Benghazi; it has actively stonewalled the questions of legitimate reporters on the topic. Remember, when he sought election in 2008, Obama vowed to preside over the “most transparent administration in history.”
Clearly, it’s not that they don’t know how.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.