White House tried to use Beng­hazi to pol­ish the pres­i­dent’s im­age

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The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - BY GUY TAY­LOR

A clutch of newly re­leased White House emails pro­vides the clear­est ev­i­dence to date that top pres­i­den­tial aides sought to use anti-Amer­i­can protests sweep­ing across the Mid­dle East in 2012 — as well as the aftermath of the Beng­hazi ter­ror­ist at­tack — to push an im­age of Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­eign pol­icy as “steady and states­man­like,” just weeks be­fore his re-elec­tion.

In one of the emails — writ­ten just hours af­ter a top CIA of­fi­cial warned the White House that the Beng­hazi at­tack might not have been in­spired by the In­ter­net video that had trig­gered protests in Egypt, Ye­men and other na­tions in the re­gion — the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­viser told U.N. Am­bas­sador Su­san E. Rice in a memo to push the fa­vor­able story line any­way on na­tional tele­vi­sion.

The Sept. 15, 2012, late-af­ter­noon email from White House ad­viser Ben Rhodes, now the No. 2 of­fi­cial on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, was re­leased this week un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act to a con­ser­va­tive le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion. It of­fers what ap­pears to be the first clear ev­i­dence that the White House sought a po­lit­i­cal edge in the con­fus­ing aftermath of the worst U.S. diplo­matic tragedy in decades.

Un­der the head­ing “Goals” for Ms. Rice’s ap­pear­ance on five Sun­day talk shows, Mr. Rhodes wrote to other White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cials that a main ob­jec­tive of Ms. Rice’s in­ter­views should be to “re­in­force the pres­i­dent and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strength and steadi­ness in deal­ing with dif­fi­cult chal­lenges.”

A sec­ond goal was to link the Beng­hazi at­tack — and those on other diplo­matic sites across the Mid­dle East — to an ob­scure anti-Mus­lim video and to in­sist that the protests were not “rooted” in a “broader fail­ure of [ad­min­is­tra­tion] pol­icy.”

Crit­ics such as Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, South Carolina Repub­li­can, called the Rhodes memo a “smok­ing gun” back­ing charges that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion cov­ered up its se­cu­rity and pol­icy fail­ures re­gard­ing the Beng­hazi at­tack to pro­tect the pres­i­dent’s im­age at a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive time. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the memo re­flected the best as­sess­ment of a con­fus­ing sit­u­a­tion and re­ferred not to Beng­hazi but more gen­er­ally to un­rest spread­ing through­out the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

Ahead of circulation of the email by the ac­tivist group Ju­di­cial Watch, Mr. Gra­ham and fel­low Repub­li­can Sens. Kelly Ay­otte of New Hamp­shire and John McCain of Ari­zona wrote a let­ter Mon­day call­ing for an­other round of in­ves­tiga­tive hear­ings into the White House’s re­sponse to the Sept. 11, 2012, at­tack in which Am­bas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens and three other Amer­i­cans were killed.

For months, the White House and top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials de­nied that pol­i­tics played any part in their de­scrip­tion of Beng­hazi and was sim­ply an ef­fort by the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to sort through con­tra­dic­tory facts about what hap­pened on the ground.

But Mr. Rhodes’ email sug­gests that the White House also was look­ing to use the tragedy and Ms. Rice’s ap­pear­ances on the Sun­day talk shows to bur­nish the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal im­age two months be­fore Elec­tion Day.

“I think that people have come to trust that Pres­i­dent Obama pro­vides lead­er­ship that is steady and states­man­like,” Mr. Rhodes in the email as one of the “top lines” for Ms. Rice to strike dur­ing her TV ap­pear­ance. “There are al­ways go­ing to be chal­lenges that emerge around the world, and time and again he’s shown we can meet them.”

In an­other sec­tion of the email, Mr. Rhodes wrote that if pressed about a story cir­cu­lat­ing in some cor­ners of the me­dia that week that the Beng­hazi at­tack rep­re­sented an in­tel­li­gence fail­ure, Ms. Rice should of­fer the fol­low­ing re­sponse:

“The cur­rently avail­able in­for­ma­tion sug­gests that the demon­stra­tions in Beng­hazi were spon­ta­neously in­spired by the protests at the U.S. Em­bassy in Cairo and evolved into a di­rect as­sault against the U.S. Con­sulate.” The White House has ac­knowl­edged that sub­se­quent rev­e­la­tions con­tra­dicted that orig­i­nal story.

The Rhodes email does not con­tra­dict the es­tab­lished nar­ra­tive about Beng­hazi’s aftermath — that the White House was feed­ing Ms. Rice talk­ing points crafted by the CIA.

Just hours be­fore Mr. Rhodes wrote the email, a top CIA of­fi­cial alerted the White House that the spy agency’s sta­tion chief in Libya no longer be­lieved the orig­i­nal ac­counts that the Beng­hazi at­tack grew out of a protest over an anti-Is­lam video and in­stead was car­ried out by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists who planned the as­sault.

In rare pub­lic tes­ti­mony on Capi­tol Hill this month, for­mer CIA Deputy Di­rec­tor Michael J. Morell re­vealed how he and oth­ers at CIA learned Sept. 14 that there ap­peared to be no protest on the ground from a re­port from its of­fi­cers in Libya, and that a day later, on Sept. 15, the CIA’s sta­tion chief sent an email re­in­forc­ing that the at­tack was not pre­ceded by a protest.

But Mr. Morell also tes­ti­fied that nei­ther he nor other CIA of­fi­cials moved to edit the protest in­for­ma­tion from draft talk­ing points crafted by the CIA at the time be­cause agency an­a­lysts had not defini­tively ruled out that sce­nario.

“The an­a­lysts had an ev­i­den­tiary ba­sis to make the judg­ment that there was a protest on­go­ing at the time of the at­tack,” Mr. Morell said. “Al­to­gether, there were roughly a dozen or so re­ports in­di­cat­ing that this was the case.”

The next day, Sept. 16, Ms. Rice went on Sun­day talk shows with the ac­count that the at­tack was be­lieved to have been started by protests over an Amer­i­can-made anti-Is­lam video.

Mr. Morell tes­ti­fied that he did not know the talk­ing points on which he had worked would be used by Ms. Rice for the pur­pose of a pub­lic ac­count on TV.

Nonethe­less, by Sept. 18, 2012, two days af­ter Ms. Rice’s ap­pear­ance, the CIA re­ceived a re­port from the Libyan govern­ment that se­cu­rity footage out­side the Beng­hazi com­plex showed no protest be­fore the at­tack. U.S. of­fi­cials re­viewed the footage over the next few days. By Sept. 22, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity re­vised its anal­y­sis and for­mally de­clared that the at­tack was re­lated to ter­ror­ism and was not pre­ceded by a protest over the anti-Is­lam video.

In re­leas­ing the Rhodes email on Tues­day, Ju­di­cial Watch claimed in a state­ment that the main point of the White House strat­egy at the time was to por­tray the Beng­hazi in­ci­dent as “rooted in an In­ter­net video and not a fail­ure of pol­icy.”

“Now we know that Obama White House’s chief con­cern about the Beng­hazi at­tack was mak­ing sure that Pres­i­dent Obama looked good,” Ju­di­cial Watch Pres­i­dent Tom Fit­ton said in a state­ment.

Time Sen­si­tive Pub­li­ca­tion: Mailed May 2, 2014

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

On Sept. 14, 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama marked the re­turn to the United States of the re­mains of the Amer­i­cans killed in Beng­hazi, Libya.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

White House ad­viser Ben Rhodes wrote that a main ob­jec­tive should be to “re­in­force the pres­i­dent and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strength.”

NBC VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.N. Am­bas­sador Su­san E. Rice ap­peared on Sun­day talk shows af­ter the Beng­hazi at­tack us­ing CIA talk­ing points that de­flected any fail­ure of ad­min­is­tra­tion pol­icy.

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