For a long time, the Republican hunt for the truth surrounding the Benghazi terror attack has reminded me of one of President Reagan's favorite jokes. It concerns a little boy whose parents worried he was too optimistic. So they took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen his spirits, the doctor led the boy into a room piled high with horse manure. The boy unexpectedly squealed with delight and began digging through it. "What on earth are you doing?" the psychiatrist asked.
"With all this manure," the boy replied, "there must be a pony in here somewhere."
And so it is with Benghazi. Republicans, convinced that the American people are being hoodwinked by the Obama administration, have been digging through the doo-doo for eight months. There must be a conspiracy and cover-up in here somewhere, they think. There must be.
The White House has scoffed at this witch hunt for months. But this week, it's looking like they're the ones standing in the doo-doo — playing politics, it seems, with tragedy.
The administration has long maintained that the now-infamous talking points used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on five Sunday talk shows just days after the September 11 attack were the product of the intelligence community. We know the talking points originated in the intelligence community. But the final product itself? No.
ABC News reports that the documents were heavily edited by the State Department. And not just edited, but censored: State requested that references to Ansar al-Sharia — tied to al Qaeda — be deleted. It also requested that references to CIA warnings about terror threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack be deleted as well. (Read the whole ABC story here.)
Rewind to November 28. Here's what White House press secretary Jay Carney told us at that day's press briefing:
Those talking points originated from the intelligence community (IC). They reflect the IC's best assessments of what they thought had happened. The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment (emphasis added) that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word 'consulate' to 'diplomatic facility' because 'consulate' was inaccurate.
And Carney just two days ago stuck to this story, telling us:
The only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and nonsubstantive. They corrected the description of the building or the facility in Benghazi from consulate to diplomatic facility and the like. And ultimately, this all has been discussed and reviewed and provided in enormous levels of detail by the administration to congressional investigators, and the attempt to politicize the talking points, again, is part of an effort to, you know, chase after what isn't the substance here.
Carney's phrase "here at the White House" may be accurate in the physical sense, but in the broader context there's no question he was referring to the Obama administration at large. And as Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard — which first published some of the email traffic between the White House and State Department on this — charged, "senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what happened."
So who at the State Department was involved in changing — and censoring — the talking points? According to one email, spokesperson Victoria Nuland — who reported to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — expressed specific concern about this particular CIA talking point:
The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador's convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks. [Via ABC News]
Is there a White House connection? ABC notes that in a Sept. 14 email — two days before Rice went on TV — Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the State Department's concerns needed to be addressed.
"We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department," Rhodes noted.
The final talking points eventually given to Rice reflected State's concerns, but Carney told us that it's all on the up-and-up because the changes were signed off on by the CIA.
There's a meatpacking-like quality to all this. You don't really want to know how your hamburger is processed, do you? The administration's defense — and it's looking thinner than ice on a late spring pond — is that government bureaucracy is messy and multi-layered and that's a big part of why Rice said what she did.
Benghazi occurred seven weeks before election day. The administration's strategy was simple: Downplay the terror attack, change the narrative, and run out the clock. And that's what it did.
But now the dam has burst. Carney's "here at the White House" comment has essentially thrown Clinton under the bus. Republicans, who leaked the edited emails to Karl and Hayes, have succeeded on two fronts: They've got the administration on the defensive over Benghazi, and they've weakened the Democrat's most formidable 2016 candidate.
It seems that after all that digging, Republicans have found their pony at last.