It’s a cliché, of course, but it really is true: in Washington, every scandal has a crime and a coverup. The ongoing debate about the attack on the United States facility in Benghazi where four Americans were killed, and the Obama Administration’s response to it, is no exception. For a long time, it seemed like the idea of a coverup was just a Republican obsession. But now there is something to it.
On Friday, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl revealed the details of the editing process for the C.I.A.’s talking points about the attack, including the edits themselves and some of the reasons a State Department spokeswoman gave for requesting those edits. It’s striking to see the twelve different iterations that the talking points went through before they were released to Congress and to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who used them in Sunday show appearances that became a central focus of Republicans’ criticism of the Administration’s public response to the attacks. Over the course of about twenty-four hours, the remarks evolved from something specific and fairly detailed into a bland, vague mush.
From the very beginning of the editing process, the talking points contained the erroneous assertion that the attack was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved.” That’s an important fact, because the right has always criticized the Administration based on the suggestion that the C.I.A. and the State Department, contrary to what they said, knew that the attack was not spontaneous and not an outgrowth of a demonstration. But everything else about the changes that were made is problematic. The initial draft revealed by Karl mentions “at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi” before the one in which four Americans were killed. That’s not in the final version. Nor is this: “[W]e do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.” That was replaced by the more tepid “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” (Even if we accept the argument that State wanted to be sure that extremists were involved, and that they could be linked to Al Qaeda, before saying so with any level of certainty—which is reasonable and supported by evidence from Karl’s reporting—that doesn’t fully explain these changes away.)
Democrats will argue that the editing process wasn’t motivated by a desire to protect Obama’s record on fighting Al Qaeda in the run-up to the 2012 election. They have a point; based on what we’ve seen from Karl’s report, the process that went into creating and then changing the talking points seems to have been driven in large measure by two parts of the government—C.I.A. and State—trying to make sure the blame for the attacks and the failure to protect American personnel in Benghazi fell on the other guy.
But the mere existence of the edits—whatever the motivation for them—seriously undermines the White House’s credibility on this issue. This past November (after Election Day), White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment 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.”
Remarkably, Carney is sticking with that line even now. In his regular press briefing on Friday afternoon (a briefing that was delayed several times, presumably in part so the White House could get its spin in order, but also so that it could hold a secretive pre-briefing briefing with select members of the White House press corps), he said:
The only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the C.I.A. was a change from referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi from “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post”… it was a matter of non-substantive factual correction. But there was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this and is always appropriate.
This is an incredible thing for Carney to be saying. He’s playing semantic games, telling a roomful of journalists that the definition of editing we’ve all been using is wrong, that the only thing that matters is who’s actually working the keyboard. It’s not quite re-defining the word “is,” or the phrase “sexual relations,” but it’s not all that far off, either.
Photograph of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney answering questions during a press briefing on May 10th, by Win McNamee/Getty.