The Benghazi disputes revolve around the alleged mendacity of the Obama administration’s official talking points and allegations of a cover-up of its manipulations aimed at protecting the president’s 2012 re-election campaign. These questions are hotly disputed with accusations of politicization on both sides.
The process that produced the talking points is not disputed. The attack took place on Sept. 11. The CIA immediately went to work to compose a set of “talking points” for Congress, the media, and the public. It distributed its first version to a group of top administration officials on the evening of Sept. 14. Forty-five minutes after receiving them, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wrote that the changes did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership.” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, responded, saying “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” (Sept. 15) at the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee.
Mike Morell, deputy director of the CIA, worked with Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department’s director of policy planning to edit the talking points after this committee meeting. According to a ABC News report the initial CIA draft went through 12 revisions before their distribution to Congress and to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows on Sept. 16. Working from this final draft Ambassador Rice spoke of a spontaneous demonstration prompted by an obscure “Islamophobic” video. That story is now discredited. Nobody defends it.
Those are the facts on which there now seems to be general agreement. Set aside the “cover-up” attacks and counter-attacks. Pay attention to the bureaucratic process instead. It appears that the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the National Security Deputies Committee, advisers, directors, deputies and staffers, by the dozens, if not hundred, labored for days through multiple revisions to produce a thin rectangle of talking points;, not a strategy for combating terrorism, or a master plan for national security, just talking points.
As the Washington Post’s Carl Cannon points out “talking points” was originally used by the State Department in the 1970s to describe the precise, but deliberately evasive, language used in international diplomacy. It was soon adopted by political operatives in both parties to describe the lines used in interviews to defend their positions and attack those of the opposition. We should all be worried that so few people seem to find this vast deployment of high-level bureaucratic energy on behalf of mere news management scandalous.
All news is now politicized, by the media no less than by our political parties. News management, spinning, talking points, semantic manipulation, deceptive rhetoric are integral to our political culture. That will not change. Awareness of that fact is the only defense and it’s probably an adequate defense for all but the most naive among us.
Evidence that our government is unable to achieve the simplest purposes without ponderous bureaucratic procedures should be far more alarming. Readers might ponder this question: how many high ranking public officials, how many email exchanges, how many editorial consultations and how many hours of deliberation are really required to write a set of talking points that produces controversy, apologies, outrage, denial, and strenuous flurries of attack, defense and damage control?
Keep in mind that Victoria Nuland requested a revision of the first version because she feared it “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?” Behold the results of the laborious vetting she set in motion.
Could a State Department janitor chosen at random, equipped with adequate writing materials and provided with a pint of cheap gin have done worse? How?
Is there any reason to hope that this kind of elaborate, time-consuming bureaucratic fumbling will not continue long after Obama’s term comes to an end? Not if people don’t notice it when it is exposed in detail before their eyes by the official record.
John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org