Who burned ABC News on the Benghazi emails?
Last week, ABC News' Jonathan Karl had a big scoop, reporting on a series of 11 revisions to Obama administration talking points hashed out in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Karl quoted emails from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raising objections to some points the CIA included. Karl also appeared to tie the revisions to the White House by quoting an email from the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, Ben Rhodes:
"We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don't want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting."
Karl says he relied on "White House emails reviewed by ABC News," but later in the story adds the caveat that some of the story's contentions rely on "summaries of White House and State Department emails." The quoted Rhodes email, CNN's Jake Tapper reported Tuesday, was a misleading summary provided to Karl by his source. The real email doesn't mention the State Department at all:
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.
We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies. [Rhodes, via CNN]
The Week's Jon Terbush ran through the key differences between the summarized email and the full version. Karl and ABC News are mostly sticking with their story, saying that the emails are substantively similar. But Karl admits in a follow-up post that in the Rhodes email, he quoted "verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes." He asked the source to explain the differences, and this was the emailed response:
WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.
Well, "I guarantee you Karl had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw that explanation," says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. The truth is, "Karl pretty clearly got burned by his source," and then he "seriously singed himself by making it really, really look like he was looking at the emails themselves when he wasn't." So, who burned him?
Marshall speculates that Karl's source was "quite likely congressional staffers who were allowed to review the emails but not make copies," and then "took notes which were misleading, either willfully or through wishful thinking." He adds: "I don't know for certain these were notes from a House Republican staffer, but it's awfully likely."
If you look at who gains from linking this to the White House, House Republicans are the obvious pick, agrees Jason Easley at PoliticusUSA. "Karl's source was likely someone within the Republican House, because these emails were made available to the Republicans investigating Benghazi months ago." Before he went to ABC, Karl was a congressional reporter for CNN, so he has sources in the House. And "it wasn't a coincidence that this story broke days before House Republicans held another Benghazi hearing."
But what if it wasn't House Republicans? Some of the recipients of Rhodes' email are blacked out, but Tapper notes that these people were privy to the original email chain: Nuland, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, CIA spokeswoman Cynthia Rapp, State Department official Jake Sullivan, and National Intelligence Directorate spokesman Shawn Turner.
The people from State and the White House don't have any obvious incentive to make the State Department or the White House look bad — the apparent motive of Karl's source. But as The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler points out, the whole editing process of the infamous Benghazi talking points "basically was a bureaucratic knife fight, pitting the State Department against the CIA."
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones elaborates:
The more we find out about the editing of the Benghazi talking points, the more the evidence points in one direction: This was a CIA fiasco from the start. As we all know by now, the Benghazi mission was primarily a CIA operation, and they were the ones responsible for security there. But when it came time to write up talking points for public consumption after the Sept. 11 attacks, they immediately started trying to shift blame. [Mother Jones]
David Brooks at The New York Times, writing to defend Nuland, similarly notes that the heat on the 30-year foreign policy veteran comes "from two quarters, from Republicans critical of the Obama administration's handling of Benghazi and intelligence officials shifting blame for Benghazi onto the State Department." The CIA was responsible for the much-criticized talking points about the Benghazi attack growing out of a protest inspired by similar ones in Egypt, Brooks says, and "the CIA analysts quickly scrubbed references to al Qaeda from the key part of the draft, investigators on Capitol Hill now tell me."
On Friday evening of Sept. 14, the updated talking points were emailed to the relevant officials in various departments, including Nuland. She wondered why the CIA was giving members of Congress talking points that were far more assertive than anything she could say or defend herself. She also noted that the talking points left the impression that the CIA had issued all sorts of warnings before the attack.
Remember, this was at a moment when the State Department was taking heat for what was mostly a CIA operation, while doing verbal gymnastics to hide the CIA's role. Intentionally or not, the CIA seemed to be repaying the favor by trying to shift blame to the State Department for ignoring intelligence.... [Nuland] was caught in a brutal interagency turf war, and she defended her department. [New York Times]
If that turf war is still going strong, the CIA isn't known for playing nice. But Karl, Tapper, and Obama's conservative critics all agree on what could clear this up: The White House releasing all the emails. The CIA would surely love that.