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The Benghazi talking points

Internal emails released Wednesday by the White House support the president's assertion that there's no 'there' there.

May 16, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • President Obama, during a news conference,said his administration made no attempt to cover up or downplay the involvement of terrorists in last year's deadly attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
President Obama, during a news conference,said his administration made… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )

The furor over the Benghazi talking points continues. Republicans still see them as the main event in a campaign to embarrass President Obama. The president, for his part, calls them a "sideshow." Finally, on Wednesday, the White House released more than 100 pages of internal emails that showed, in excruciating detail, exactly how the talking points were edited — and the emails, at least to our reading, supported the president's characterization.

Prepared by intelligence officials and revised in interagency discussions, the now-famous talking points were the basis for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's comments five days after the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Libya that the siege had grown out of a spontaneous reaction to protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim video.

Republicans and other critics have made much of the fact that an early version of the talking points specifically mentioned participation in the attack by "Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda" and referred to five previous attacks on Western interests in Benghazi. Those passages were cut from the final version — proof, critics say, of a conspiracy by administration officials to disguise, for election-year purposes, that the attacks were a premeditated terrorist operation.

But the documents released Wednesday suggest other explanations for the changes. For example, a State Department official worried that language about past security threats might be cited by members of Congress, who would "beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings." And the specific reference to Al Qaeda appears to have been removed out of fear of compromising a Justice Department criminal investigation.

Even the very first version of the talking points suggests that the attack was inspired by the protests in Cairo over the anti-Muslim video, a perfectly plausible supposition at the time. That undermines the Republican claim that administration officials concocted the notion of a Benghazi protest to protect the president from a perception that Al Qaeda was ascendant again.

Did the administration cling too long to the explanation that the attack was inspired by the video? Obviously, and it's possible that wishful thinking and political self-interest made that explanation attractive to Obama.

But the mixed signals sent out by the administration about the involvement of Al Qaeda or other Islamic militant groups fall far short of the conspiracy to deceive the American people that Republicans have desperately clung to. On Monday, an exasperated Obama, referring to the emails, said: "There's no 'there' there." The same is true of the allegation of a broader Benghazi coverup. And now that we know, let's move on.

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