A clutch of newly released White House emails provides the clearest evidence to date that top presidential aides sought to use anti-American protests sweeping across the Middle East in 2012 — as well as the aftermath of the Benghazi terrorist attack — to push an image of President Obama’s foreign policy as “steady and statesmanlike,” just weeks before his re-election.
In one of the emails — written just hours after a top CIA official warned the White House that the Benghazi attack might not have been inspired by the Internet video that had triggered protests in Egypt, Yemen and other nations in the region — the administration’s strategic communications adviser told U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice in a memo to push the favorable story line anyway on national television.
The Sept. 15, 2012, late-afternoon email from White House adviser Ben Rhodes, now the No. 2 official on the National Security Council, was released this week under the Freedom of Information Act to a conservative legal organization. It offers what appears to be the first clear evidence that the White House sought a political edge in the confusing aftermath of the worst U.S. diplomatic tragedy in decades.
Under the heading “Goals” for Ms. Rice’s appearance on five Sunday talk shows, Mr. Rhodes wrote to other White House communications officials that a main objective of Ms. Rice’s interviews should be to “reinforce the president and the administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
A second goal was to link the Benghazi attack — and those on other diplomatic sites across the Middle East — to an obscure anti-Muslim video and to insist that the protests were not “rooted” in a “broader failure of [administration] policy.”
Critics such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called the Rhodes memo a “smoking gun” backing charges that the Obama administration covered up its security and policy failures regarding the Benghazi attack to protect the president’s image at a politically sensitive time. Administration officials said the memo reflected the best assessment of a confusing situation and referred not to Benghazi but more generally to unrest spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Ahead of circulation of the email by the activist group Judicial Watch, Mr. Graham and fellow Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona wrote a letter Monday calling for another round of investigative hearings into the White House’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
For months, the White House and top intelligence officials denied that politics played any part in their description of Benghazi and was simply an effort by the intelligence community to sort through contradictory facts about what happened on the ground.
But Mr. Rhodes’ email suggests that the White House also was looking to use the tragedy and Ms. Rice’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows to burnish the president’s political image two months before Election Day.
“I think that people have come to trust that President Obama provides leadership that is steady and statesmanlike,” Mr. Rhodes in the email as one of the “top lines” for Ms. Rice to strike during her TV appearance. “There are always going to be challenges that emerge around the world, and time and again he’s shown we can meet them.”
In another section of the email, Mr. Rhodes wrote that if pressed about a story circulating in some corners of the media that week that the Benghazi attack represented an intelligence failure, Ms. Rice should offer the following response:
“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.” The White House has acknowledged that subsequent revelations contradicted that original story.
The Rhodes email does not contradict the established narrative about Benghazi’s aftermath — that the White House was feeding Ms. Rice talking points crafted by the CIA.
Just hours before Mr. Rhodes wrote the email, a top CIA official alerted the White House that the spy agency’s station chief in Libya no longer believed the original accounts that the Benghazi attack grew out of a protest over an anti-Islam video and instead was carried out by Islamic extremists who planned the assault.
In rare public testimony on Capitol Hill this month, former CIA Deputy Director Michael J. Morell revealed how he and others at CIA learned Sept. 14 that there appeared to be no protest on the ground from a report from its officers in Libya, and that a day later, on Sept. 15, the CIA’s station chief sent an email reinforcing that the attack was not preceded by a protest.
But Mr. Morell also testified that neither he nor other CIA officials moved to edit the protest information from draft talking points crafted by the CIA at the time because agency analysts had not definitively ruled out that scenario.
“The analysts had an evidentiary basis to make the judgment that there was a protest ongoing at the time of the attack,” Mr. Morell said. “Altogether, there were roughly a dozen or so reports indicating that this was the case.”
The next day, Sept. 16, Ms. Rice went on Sunday talk shows with the account that the attack was believed to have been started by protests over an American-made anti-Islam video.
Mr. Morell testified that he did not know the talking points on which he had worked would be used by Ms. Rice for the purpose of a public account on TV.
Nonetheless, by Sept. 18, 2012, two days after Ms. Rice’s appearance, the CIA received a report from the Libyan government that security footage outside the Benghazi complex showed no protest before the attack. U.S. officials reviewed the footage over the next few days. By Sept. 22, the intelligence community revised its analysis and formally declared that the attack was related to terrorism and was not preceded by a protest over the anti-Islam video.
In releasing the Rhodes email on Tuesday, Judicial Watch claimed in a statement that the main point of the White House strategy at the time was to portray the Benghazi incident as “rooted in an Internet video and not a failure of policy.”
“Now we know that Obama White House’s chief concern about the Benghazi attack was making sure that President Obama looked good,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.