The bombshell report that the Obama administration deliberately revised talking points on the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, may not be such a bombshell after all.
An internal White House email obtained by CNN appears to dispute earlier reports that implied a concerted effort by the administration to downplay the most damaging aspects of the attack and to spare the State Department any political fallout. The new email suggests that the crux of that argument may have been misleading, leading to speculation that whoever originally leaked the contents of that correspondence did so to deliberately mischaracterize the administration's response to the attack.
Last week, ABC News and The Weekly Standard reported that a review of White House emails indicated that the administration had sought to scrub terror references from its official talking points, which went through 12 revisions. That finding, said The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, proved that the administration had "engaged in a wholesale rewriting of intelligence assessments about Benghazi in order to mislead the public." ABC said it had been provided only with summaries of the White House emails.
An actual email, obtained and posted online in full by CNN, paints a different picture. From that email, sent by Ben Rhodes, then the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications:
Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.
There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don't compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression. [CNN]
The difference is subtle, but significant. Whereas the previous reports indicated that Rhodes and the State Department drove the revision process, Rhodes' email suggests he was mostly concerned with ensuring messaging uniformity between multiple agencies. As CNN's Jake Tapper notes, both the CIA and FBI were struggling to iron out their own internal debates over how much to publicly reveal about the attacks, and over whether the assault was premeditated or spontaneous. Those divergent assessments, the email suggests, were what prompted the White House to nitpick the language in those dozen revisions.
A meeting alluded to in the leaked email also appears to back this up. While previous reports hinged on Rhodes supposedly saying he would work through the talking points at a later meeting, a source told CNN that the meeting was about more than just the talking points, and that Rhodes had been "discussing other items more broadly, including the investigation into the attacks, related intelligence, and what administration officials would say to reporters and the public."
NBC's Chuck Todd later obtained his own copy of the email, saying it contained information "contradicting" those earlier reports.
The newly released email shows that whoever originally leaked summaries of the emails "seriously misquoted" them to tarnish the White House, says Forbes' Rick Ungar.
"Clearly, someone is funneling false information to certain media outlets that are all too anxious to produce the kind of 'scoops' that get headlines — even if these scoops are far from accurate," he says.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, who last week pushed back against the initial reports, said Tuesday he wasn't surprised by the new information. He also accused House Republicans, who'd previously been shown the emails, of selectively editing their content to bolster their offensive against the administration.
"Republicans who were leaking these emails that have been shared with Congress didn't just do that, they decided to fabricate portions of an email and make up portions of an email in order to fit a political narrative," he said.
ABC's Jon Karl, who wrote the network's original story on the emails, admitted Tuesday that "there are some differences" between the email CNN published and his previous understanding of its contents. However, he said other email exchanges still bolstered his main argument that the State Department had sought changes to the talking points.
A spokesman for ABC affirmed that the network stood by the story, saying in a statement to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, "Assuming the email cited by Jake Tapper is accurate, it is consistent with the summary quoted by Jon Karl."