Charles Krauthammer argued on Special Report tonight that the new Benghazi e-mails from the White House are a “smoking document,” but that the media will plead that the scandal is too complicated, so the issue is dead. Alas, the scandal is complicated enough that Krauthammer is either mistaken about the facts of what he calls “a classic cover-up of a cover-up,” or he’s eliding the details for his audience.
An e-mail revealed today shows a White House official recommending that U.N. ambassador Susan Rice play up the importance in the Benghazi attacks of an anti-Islam YouTube video that was mentioned in an unclassified summary from the intelligence community (the “talking points”), in order to help burnish the administration’s image. Krauthammer claims this demolishes the White House’s longstanding claim that “this stuff” — the involvement of the video — “all came from the CIA, or from intelligence, that it was completely clean.” What the batch of e-mails (most of which aren’t new, they can be read here) show is the opposite: that the CIA and the State Department assembled talking points pinning the attacks partly on the video, without any input from the White House.
Then the White House told Susan Rice to emphasize that the intelligence community had concluded, on balance, that an exogenous factor (the video) had caused the protests, and that administration policy (in terms of the stability of Libya and the fight against al-Qaeda) wasn’t to blame here.
“We now have the White House saying, ‘we’re pushing the video because we don’t want it to be blamed on the failure of our policies,’” Krauthammer says. That’s basically right, but “pushing the video” was playing up a questionable and politically convenient unclassified intelligence assessment after a horrible tragedy, not making something up or engaging in a cover-up.
The most straightforward thing, if the White House eschewed all political considerations, would have been to say it was a horrible event, heavily armed terrorists were involved, and an investigation was under way. Nothing more was known for sure. There probably were good policy reasons not to mention the involvement of al-Qaeda-linked groups, which was immediately suspected but not confirmed until much later. But of course the White House could have said that if they wanted, too, even though the intelligence community cut it from the talking points. (I suspect, if this White House were occupied by the other party, that conservatives would be more willing to accept the idea that the intelligence community simply gets things wrong, and that naming details and suspects should take a backseat to the safety of Americans abroad.)
Krauthammer also missteps when he says the YouTube explanation couldn’t have come from the intelligence community because deputy CIA director Michael Morell testified that the idea “didn’t come from him.” But Morell said under oath that his top CIA counterterror analyst wrote the original draft of the talking points, in which the agency concluded, on balance, the attacks had been intertwined with a video protest. Krauthammer says the video explanation has to have come from the State Department or the White House — Morell said it came from the intelligence community and that the White House never made any substantive comments.
The State Department did demand a watering-down of the talking points’ discussion of warnings before the attacks (presumably for self-interested reasons) and the involvement of al-Qaeda-tied groups, which they got from the CIA. The one remaining issue is why exactly the State Department demanded those changes, and how they got them done: The White House has tried to play this down, as I wrote last year, but State got lots of potentially controversial details taken out at the request not of an Obama appointee but career civil servant Victoria Nuland. There are reasonable if not satisfactory reasons for why State would have done that, but they could have done it to make themselves look good. That would be a scandal all its own — but not the one Benghazi theorists keep claiming is afoot. CIA officials, including Morell, generally have said they agreed to the edits State suggested, and it wasn’t forced. Maybe that’s all suspicious, and maybe the CIA or the Director of National Intelligence are horribly politicized and compromised — but they also make mistakes. We just don’t know. Meanwhile, Republicans, and Krauthammer in this instance, are trying to pretend the White House played a role that we have no evidence, just our own suspicions, to believe they did.
Krauthammer’s right that what we have here was obvious all along: On the totality of the evidence, the White House took the intelligence community and diplomatic community’s estimate, which was relatively uncertain, bereft of much detail, and turned out days later to be quite wrong, and played up certain parts of it to avoid questions about their counterterror strategy and the situation in Libya. That isn’t being as straightforward with the American public as they could or probably should have been; it’s also not a lie or a cover-up. Whether what we have adds up to the “serious offense” Krauthammer calls it is a subjective judgment — what’s not subjective is the facts we have.