Politics & Policy

Newly Released E-mails Show that Clinton Staff Was Concerned about Benghazi Portrayal

Clinton at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 12, 2012. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

The latest trove of Hillary Clinton e-mails released by the State Department show concern among her staff over how she and the White House characterized the September 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi, with a top aide coaching the secretary of state on how to explain earlier statements that the attack was caused by a YouTube video.

Clinton’s staff was worried about how questions surrounding the attack could affect the secretary’s image just a few days after terrorists struck the State Department compound in Benghazi. After White House national-security adviser Susan Rice went on the Sunday talk shows on September 16, 2012, top aide Jake Sullivan sent a transcript and after-action report directly to Clinton.

“She wasn’t asked about whether we had any intel,” he wrote. “But she did make clear our view that this started spontaneously and then evolved.” That view was disputed by several officials in the Department’s Near East’s Affairs Bureau, who said at the time that Rice “was off the reservation.” Sullivan also called it “troubling” that Rice’s suggested investigation could find the State Department negligent in providing security for their employees, but added that “she had been pushed there.” 

One week later, as the YouTube narrative began to fall apart, Clinton tasked her communications staff with rounding up all her statements about the attack. On September 24, top adviser Philippe Reines sent the list to Clinton with notes on how to respond to allegations that she’d misled the American people. “You never said spontaneous or characterized the motives,” he wrote. “In fact you were careful in your first statement that we were assessing motive and method. The way you treated the video in the Libya context was to say that some sought to *justify* the attack on that basis.”

Though Clinton appeared to publicly blame the YouTube video for the Benghazi attacks – even telling the father of one victim that the government would hold the video’s creator responsible – she was saying something different in private. “Two officers were killed today in Benghazi by an al-Qaida-like group,” she wrote to her daughter on the night of the attack. The next day, she wrote to the Egyptian prime minister that “we know the attack had nothing to do with a video.”

—Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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