In order to understand just how badly the White House may have fumbled this ball, let’s go back to last week. Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard reported from Congressional sources on a White House-State Department e-mail string that made clear that the administration wanted the talking points on Benghazi massaged to protect sources and its own political goals. ABCs Jon Karl later reported from the e-mails themselves, showing that the White House and State Department went through 12 versions of talking points before settling on the final version, which CIA Director Davod Petraeus called “useless” and advised against using.
Yesterday, however — not too long before Jay Carney’s press briefing at the White House — Jake Tapper got a leaked version of an e-mail sent by Ben Rhodes that seemed to contradict the reporting from Hayes and Karl:
CNN has obtained an e-mail sent by a top aide to President Barack Obama about White House reaction to the deadly attack last September 11 on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that apparently differs from how sources characterized it to two different media organizations.
The actual e-mail from then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes appears to show that whomever leaked it did so in a way that made it appear that the White House was primarily concerned with the State Department’s desire to remove references and warnings about specific terrorist groups so as to not bring criticism to the department.
During the press conference, Carney seized on this report to claim that the Benghazi story was a trumped-up non-story:
The only problem with Tapper’s leak was that it was incomplete. Tapper didn’t get the rest of the e-mail chain, Hayes reported, which provided the context that generated the reporting in the first place:
Neither of my pieces quoted the Rhodes email. This was no accident. Near-verbatim is not verbatim.My first piece quoted the House GOP report on Benghazi and reported that Rhodes suggested taking the issue to the Deputies Committee meeting scheduled for the next day. My second piece paraphrased the House report – attributing concerns to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, the author of the email to which Rhodes was replying, rather than the State Department generally – and reported that Rhodes suggested taking the issue to the Deputies Committee meeting scheduled for the next day. Rhodes did not respond to a request for comment from TWS before the original report on his emails.
Tapper’s report quotes my second piece. I’ve included all of this below – my email to Rhodes, the email that was provided Tapper, and my descriptions of the Rhodes email in two pieces in TWS. …
We don’t know who provided the Ben Rhodes email to CNN, but the leak did not include the earlier emails in the chain among top administration officials. If it had, we would know more about a curious reference on page 20 of the House GOP report. The report describes an email we now know was written by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who wrote to the group that earlier edits to the Benghazi talking points did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership.” And then, according to the House report, Nuland’s email reported “that the Department’s leadership was consulting with [national security staff].’”
Is this characterization from the House report accurate? Did the consultation happen? If so, who in the State Department leadership spoke with the White House’s national security staff? Why weren’t they satisfied with the earlier edits? What were the remaining “issues” with the talking points?
Jon Karl also stands by his reporting:
But there’s another important note here that touches on State Department involvement and shows that the portrait remains far from complete. The subject line of the e-mail, according to CNN, was “Re: Revised HPSCI Talking Points for Review.”
The e-mail was sent to, among others, officials at the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence office, the National Security Council, and the State Department, including then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The official who provided this e-mail to CNN removed the other e-mail exchanges from other principals. That includes anything written by Nuland, who – as I reported – objected to a paragraph in the draft talking points that referenced prior threats against US and other foreign interests in Libya.
In that e-mail, according to source, Nuland wrote that such information “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned …”
The paragraph Nuland was “concerned” about was removed in its entirety. That e-mail has not been disputed by the administration.
I asked my original source today to explain the different wording on the Ben Rhodes e-mail, and the fact that the words “State Department” were not included in the e-mail provided to CNN’s Tapper.
This was my source’s response, via e-mail: “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.”
In other words, someone selectively leaked limited information that deliberately tried to distract from the real story. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same kind of effort attempted in the e-mail string itself — by manipulating the Benghazi talking points. In this case, it worked even less than the original effort; Carney only got one press briefing out of it. Talk about irony.
The responses from Hayes and Karl both dared the White House to release all of the e-mails rather than just the last in the string, and prove that there is “no there there.” Tapper concurred after seeing their responses:
i agree with @jonkarl — the WH should release the full emails. If there’s “no ‘there’ there,” as POTUS said, shouldnt be a problem.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 14, 2013
Breitbart’s John Nolte called this a major backfire for the Obama administration:
Assuming they are the ones who leaked to CNN an email written by Ben Rhoades (a Deputy National Security Advisor close to the President), the White House might have been too clever by half Tuesday. An act that was obviously meant to pour water on the Benghazi fire started by an ABC News report, has only ended up being gasoline. Now both CNN and ABC have joined conservative media in calling for the White House to release all the emails surrounding the editing of the CIA talking points.
If the White House thinks the Benghazi story is “no there there,” then why not release the entire e-mail chain? The longer it takes for them to do so, the more it becomes clear that there is a “there there.”
Update: Looks like Hayes, Tapper, and Karl have won a convert:
Wednesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” guest panelist Steve Rattner, a former New York Times reporter who believes the biggest scandal of the three currently facing the White House is Benghazi, asked David Axelrod what he believes the Administration should do to try and get out from under the scandal. Axelrod said, “I think they would benefit from getting all these emails out in public.”
Would they? Then why haven’t they already done so? The content of these e-mails came out days ago, when Karl reported them over the weekend. If a full release benefited the White House, they would have had them out on Monday.