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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Three more Pinocchios for White House claim

“They received these e-mails months ago, didn’t say a word about it, didn’t complain ... And then last week a Republican source provided to Jon Karl of ABC News a doctored version of a White House e-mail that started this entire fear. After 25,000 pieces of paper are provided to Congress they have to doctor e-mail to make political hay, you know they’re getting desperate here.”
— Pfeiffer, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” May 19

When a White House aide uses the same word — “doctored” — on three television shows, you know it is a carefully crafted talking point. On top of that, he says that this was done to “smear the president.”

These are strong words concerning the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. But is this a case of the White House communications chief taking liberties with the facts?

The Facts

Under pressure, the White House in March provided the e-mails to Capitol Hill Republicans surrounding the development of its talking points on the Benghazi attack when John Brennan was nominated to be CIA director. The talking points became an issue because they were used by U.N.
Ambassador Susan E. Rice on the Sunday public affairs shows the week after the attack. Republicans, however, were not permitted to have copies of e-mails, but could only take notes on them.

The broad outlines of the mail exchanges were first disclosed in an April 23 report by House Republicans. The report quoted from and summarized various e-mails, but without the names of the senders attached. Far from Pfeiffer’s claim that Republicans “didn’t complain,” the report was highly critical.

“The Administration’s talking points were developed in an interagency process that focused more on protecting the reputation and credibility of the State Department than on explaining to the American people the facts surrounding the fatal attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel in Libya,” the report asserted.

In early May, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard reported more details on the e-mails, in some cases explaining which officials were involved. But a central focus of his article was on the different versions of the talking points that emerged from the interagency process. Hayes, in most cases, summarized the e-mails unless quotes were in the House report.

Then, on May 10, ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported that there were 12 versions of talking points, under the headline: “Exclusive: Benghazi Talking Points Underwent 12 Revisions, Scrubbed of Terror Reference.” That was the key focus of the online article, as well as Karl’s appearances on the broadcast network that day. Karl, in fact, got all 12 versions of the talking points correct.
Karl started the article by citing “White House e-mails reviewed by ABC News.”

Later, he referred to “summaries of White House and State Department e-mails” and then lower in the article quoted from those e-mail summaries directly. As worded, the article gave the impression that these were actual quotes from e-mails.

In particular, Karl quotes Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes as writing late on the evening of Sept. 14:
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”
On May 13, CNN obtained the actual e-mail written by Rhodes, which said:
We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation….We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies.”

Note the correct version is missing a direct reference to the State Department. CNN, which had only obtained the single e-mail, used strong words in its report about its competitor, ABC: “Whoever provided those accounts seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.”

When the White House last week released all of its e-mails, it became clear that Rhodes was responding at the tail end of a series of e-mail exchanges that largely discussed the State Department concerns.

In other words, the summary would have been fairly close if the commas had been removed and replaced with brackets: “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities [including those of the State Department] and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.”

So is this more a case of some sloppy note-taking and reportorial imprecision? (There were also some discrepancies concerning an e-mail from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.) Hayes, on May 14, noted: “Neither of my pieces quoted the Rhodes e-mail. This was no accident. Near-verbatim is not verbatim.”

Karl over the weekend tweeted, “I sincerely regret the error I made describing an email from Ben Rhodes. I should have stated, as I did elsewhere, the reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. I apologize for my mistake.” He declined to comment further.

“I didn’t speak to anyone who represented the email summaries as direct quotes,” Hayes said in an e-mail Monday. “I called around on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to follow up on what I thought were interesting footnotes in the House GOP report on Benghazi. Those notes referred to specific emails (and included exact times) and I thought there might be more to learn.”

Moreover, the full disclosure of e-mails makes it clear that White House officials were concerned about the State Department’s objections. (Continues)

Three Pinocchios

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