A front-page "news analysis" Thursday by New York Times intelligence reporter Scott Shane, "Talking Points Overshadow Bigger Libya Issues," downplayed the seriousness of the controversy and attempted to reduce GOP criticism of UN ambassador Susan Rice, a possible Secretary of State candidate, into just more food for the partisan "meat grinder."
Shane questioned why "four pallid sentences that intelligence analysts cautiously delivered are the unlikely center of a quintessential Washington drama, in which a genuine tragedy has been fed into the meat grinder of election-year politics." The paper wasn't so forgiving about President George W. Bush's famous "16 words" in 2003 about Saddam Hussein looking for nuclear material in Africa.
Three days after the lethal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked intelligence agencies to write up some unclassified talking points on the episode. Reporters were besieging him and other legislators for comment, and he did not want to misstate facts or disclose classified information.
More than 10 weeks later, the four pallid sentences that intelligence analysts cautiously delivered are the unlikely center of a quintessential Washington drama, in which a genuine tragedy has been fed into the meat grinder of election-year politics.
In the process, the most important questions about Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11, have largely gotten lost: Were requests for greater security for diplomats in Libya ignored? Even if Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan has been decimated, what threat is posed by its affiliates and imitators in other countries where they have taken refuge? How can crucial diplomacy be conducted amid the dangerous chaos that has followed the toppling of dictators across the Arab world?
Instead, it is the parsing of the talking points --who wrote them, altered them, recited them on television or tried to explain them -- that could decide the fate of a leading candidate for secretary of state, Susan E. Rice, currently the United Nations ambassador. On Wednesday, for the second time in two weeks, Ms. Rice received a hearty endorsement from President Obama in the face of a continuing battering on Capitol Hill.
For now, the focus of Congress and the news media is mostly on language. For weeks after the Benghazi attack, Republicans accused Mr. Obama and his aides of avoiding labeling it “terrorism” for fear of tarnishing his national security record in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Since his re-election, that issue has faded, and the debate has shifted to the talking points.
Shane saw only awkwardness, not potential political insidiousness, in the administration reaction.
The facts about the talking points, like those about the Benghazi attack itself, have dribbled out slowly and awkwardly from intelligence officials who generally do not relish airing their internal deliberations. But there is now a fairly clear account.
The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies rarely prepare unclassified talking points; more often, policy makers submit proposed public comments, and intelligence analysts check them for classified information or errors of fact. But in the storm of news media coverage after the killings in Benghazi, C.I.A. officials responded quickly to Mr. Ruppersberger’s request on Sept. 14.
C.I.A. analysts drafted four sentences describing “demonstrations” in Benghazi that were “spontaneously inspired” by protests in Cairo against a crude video lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. (Later assessments concluded there were no demonstrations.) The initial version of the talking points identified the suspected attackers -- a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, with possible links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the terrorist network in North Africa.
But during a subsequent review by several intelligence agencies, C.I.A. officials were concerned that such specific language might tip off the malefactors, skew intelligence collection in Libya and interfere with the criminal investigation. So they replaced the names with the blanket term “extremists.”
Ms. Rice has been skewered by Republican senators for her comments on Sunday television news programs on Sept. 16, which they have suggested were part of an administration cover-up of the terrorist nature of the attack and links to Al Qaeda. The criticism has barely been affected by the revelation that she accurately recited the talking points the intelligence agencies prepared.
Interesting that the Times would try to minimize the false information as "four pallid sentences," given the paper's fiery, false attacks on President George W. Bush's famous "16 words" when he said in his 2003 State of the Union address that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The statement was factually correct, though the CIA later decided the evidence was inconclusive.