Recently uncovered emails sent by Victoria Nuland about the CIA talking points are not as incriminating as some would have you believe.
Update 5/15/13: When I originally wrote this article, I relied on interpretations of an email exchange by The White House, State Department, and CIA. These interpretations came from CBS News, ABC News, and The Weekly Standard. However, the White House has now released to CNN a series of 100 emails, including the aforementioned email exchange. Essentially, it looks as though the actual emails effectively debunk the theory that the Obama Administration intentionally mislead the American people about the nature of the Benghazi attacks. I have added updates explaining the differences as they apply to this post.
On Monday, May 10th, ABC News released an Exclusive Report on changes to the CIA Talking Points provided to congress shortly after the September 11th, 2012 attacks in Benghazi. Contrary to a previous assertion by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, it appears as though the State Department and White House were heavily involved in the re-writing of those talking points:
"White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department. The edits included requests from the State Department that references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia be deleted as well references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack." (ABC News Exclusive Report)The gut reaction to this news may be that Republicans were right all along suggesting the administration engaged in a cover up, hiding the fact that Benghazi was a pre-planned terrorist attack, for political reasons.
But gut reactions can be very misleading. The addition of some context, as well as attention to detail, provide a few challenges to this reaction (Although there are many issues to explore with these revelations, this post will focus exclusively on State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland's objections to the CIA's talking points).
Victoria Nulan's Smoking Gun?
One of the most contentious aspects to these revelations is a specific objection by Victoria Nuland to the initial references to al Qa'ida, as well as previous warnings by the CIA. The original Weekly Standard column gave a somewhat oversimplified account of these objections:
"The talking points were first distributed to officials in the interagency vetting process at 6:52 p.m. on Friday. Less than an hour later, at 7:39 p.m., an individual identified in the House report only as a “senior State Department official” responded to raise “serious concerns” about the draft. That official, whom The Weekly Standard has confirmed was State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, worried that members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State Department for “not paying attention to Agency warnings.”"A smoking gun right? Well, not so fast. Before we explore this in detail, it may be prudent to point out a somewhat obvious fact: Emails often lack context. Most of the time, when someone writes an email, they are not actively thinking that those emails are going to one day become public. As a result, being careful to provide appropriate context is not always a common priority. When viewing "leaked emails," don't be surprised if you find a few "hide the decline" instances. In addition, a closer inspection of the talking points, as well as her specific reactions should provide some insight.
The first thing to note is what exactly Victoria Nuland was objecting to. Here is the version of the talking points Nuland saw at 6:52 pm:
- 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 and subsequently its annex. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and currently available information continues to be evaluated. On 10 September we notified Embassy Cairo of social media reports calling for a demonstration and encouraging jihadists to break into the Embassy.
- The investigation is ongoing as to who is responsible for the violence, although the crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals. We do know that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
- Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia. The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved. Ansar al-Sharia's Facebook page aims to spread Sharia in Libya and emphasizes the need for jihad to counter what it views as false interpretations of Islam, according to an open source study.
- The wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya almost certainly contribute to the lethality of the attacks.
- 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.
Luckily, CBS News provided a much more detailed account of Nuland's response:
- The U.S. Government is working w/ Libyan authorities and intelligence partners in an effort to help bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens.
7:39 p.m. email: State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed the most sweeping concerns. "I have serious concerns about all parts highlighted below in arming members of Congress with information to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the investigation... Why do we want the Hill to be fingering [al-Qaeda linked] Ansar al-Sharia when we aren't doing that ourselves until we have investigation results? And the penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency [CIA] about al-Qaeda's presence and activities of al-Qaeda...[which] could be abused by members of Congress to fault the State Department for not paying attention... so why would we want to cede that, either?"Update 5/15/13: The interpretation of Nulan's email differs slightly from the actual email. However, none of the differences appear substantial, although the final sentence is significantly less verbose than its interpretation.
Notice that her objections are two-fold:
- Her objections to the mention of al-Qa'ida links are based on a fear of prejudicing the FBI investigation. Nuland herself was constrained from mentioning this information in her daily press briefings. Given this fact, it is no surprise why she questions why the CIA would give congress information she was not herself allowed to divulge yet. However, as CBS News points out, A facilitator of the email threads mentions the FBI did not voice any major concerns. Yet despite this, the following version of the talking points, released at 8:59pm, removes the third talking point discussing the link to Ansar al-Sharia. Since the CIA originally removed the strongest reference to "Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa'ida" during internal distribution, the only mention remaining of a terrorist group possibly being involved is the 5th talking point. It is not yet clear why this talking point was removed. It is possible there was a miscommunication somewhere that led the FBI to mistakenly approve the talking point about Ansar al-Sharia. Perhaps they changed their mind for security reasons.
Update 5/15/13: According to the original email, when Nuland received the response about the FBI not having any major concerns, that email already includes the updated talking points. This means that we can rule out the possibility that Nuland had anything to do with the removal of that talking point beyond her conserns about prejudicing the investigation. It may be the case CBS meant to convey this point with their interpretation. However, CBS's use of the word "they" was slightly ambiguous.
Either way, this case proves that some discussions were happening outside of the email thread, which means that readers should be very mindful of the context behind the emails. It is also interesting to note that the mention of terrorist groups in the 5th talking point were kept. However, it can also be noted that this specifically talks about past events and at best vaguely implies a link between the aforementioned terrorist groups and the Benghazi attacks. If there was a grey area over what would or would not have prejudiced the FBI investigation, it is possible this may have fallen into the latter category. Either way, the bottom line is that Nuland's objections to these terrorist references have virtually nothing to do with politics.
- Her last objection deals exclusively with the 5th talking point. Her worry that the talking point could be "abused by members of Congress to fault the State Department for not paying attention" does sound quite political and pretty incriminating. However, as mentioned before when reading leaked emails, one should always be mindful of context. There are a few facts that need to be examined before coming to any conclusion about Nuland's objection. I will dedicate the rest of this post to exploring these facts and what relevance they have to Nuland's objection.
Throwing The State Department Under The Bus
First and foremost, we should observe that the first talking point mentions the attack took place at two places, a State Department consulate and CIA annex. However, it has since been revealed that the "consulate" in question was not actually a consulate, but a CIA compound. Eli Lake of The Daily Beast explains:
"The CIA’s role in the Benghazi facility’s security was part of an arrangement with the State Department, according to a November 1 Wall Street Journal story that first disclosed several details about the true nature of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. That piece also said 23 of the 30 people evacuated from the Benghazi compound on the evening of the attack were CIA officers using State Department cover. Other U.S. officials confirmed this to The Daily Beast. “The Benghazi compound was a U.S. intelligence station with State Department cover,” one U.S. official said."" (emphasis mine)Ambassador Stevens was merely visiting the compound at the time of the attack. Tragically, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, given the secretive nature of the mission, administration officials could not reveal this at the time.
With that in mind, let's take a second look at that 5th talking point in more detail:
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.(emphasis mine)If we pair the emphasized parts with the first talking point, mentioning the attack was "a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex," it is clear the CIA was putting the blame for any screw-ups on the State Department.
As Glenn Kessler explains, this is no trivial matter:
"The clear implication is that State screwed up, even though internally, it was known that this was a CIA operation. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland especially objects to the reference to previous warnings, saying it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings.”"Essentially, Victoria Nuland objects to the CIA throwing the State Department under the bus for what is arguably a CIA screw-up. Is this completely innocent? Well, it is a bit too early to tell until more information comes out about the US Mission in Benghazi. Either way, it is far from the smoking gun some sensationalist headlines make it out to be.
Update 5/15/13 from CNN:
"Senior administration officials say that long before the CIA heard concerns from the State Department about warnings being put in the talking points, CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell advocated for removing the warnings out, since he felt the talking points should focus on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, rather than the previous six months. He also felt it was unprofessional and unfair for the CIA to cite its own warnings to the State Department, officials said." (emphasis mine)
As mentioned earlier, the following version of the talking points, released at 8:59pm, removed the third talking point discussing the link to Ansar al-Sharia. The Weekly Standard column mentioned that, despite this and other small changes, Nuland was still unhappy. However, The Weekly Standard fails to mention the obvious reason why this is. Despite Nuland's arguably justified objection to the 5th talking point (you know, the one where the CIA throws the State Department under the bus), it still remained in the 8:59pm revision of the talking points, only with one minor revision. Again, context matters!
Clearly all we can tell from these details that Nuland voiced two separate concerns about two separate aspects of the talking points. Her objection to the inclusion of references to terrorist organizations had to do with her current understanding of what information could and could not be divulged to the public. This was generally apolitical. However, her objection to the CIA throwing the State Department under the bus was in fact political, although arguably justified and essentially unrelated to any mentions of terrorist organizations. The only reference to terrorists scrubbed as a result of this objection was entirely incidental. So Nuland's objection provides no further evidence of the popular GOP conspiracy that the Obama Administration covered up uncomfortable details about the Benghazi attack due to the election. Be skeptical of sensationalist stories that suggest otherwise.