“Not Half As Clever As They Think They Are”: Does Anybody In Washington Know How To Run A Conspiracy?
In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “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.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe.
Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:
Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week’s Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.
And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn’t like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn’t a conspiracy, but just one person. We don’t know yet, because Karl hasn’t said who his source is. That’s his call to make; I’d argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.
This is one of those times when you have to ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn’t release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It’s another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren’t more conspiracies is that people aren’t smart enough to put them together.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 17, 2013
The American Psychiatric Association’s latest handbook — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — is about to be published. It is the handbook of mental health, and if you’re not in it, you are among the fortunate few. Even though the hour is late, I beseech the DSM’s publishers to consider one additional entry, the seriousness of which will be apparent to anyone who watches Fox News: Benghazi Syndrome.
Benghazi Syndrome is a grave malady of the noggin, the symptoms of which are a compulsion to grossly exaggerate matters and to compare almost anything to Watergate (see Watergate Syndrome, DSM-IV). Patient Zero in this regard is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a usually affable Republican from South Carolina who has suggested that the Benghazi episode warrants an investigation by a special congressional committee, just like Iran-contra and — drum roll, please — Watergate.
Others have gone even further. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and a man who once suggested the Environmental Protective Agency has something in common with the Gestapo, called the Benghazi whatchamacallit the “most egregious cover-up in American history” and possibly an impeachable offense. These charges are so serious we can only conclude that l’affaire Benghazi has the potential to bring down the Obama administration — the proverbial thread that, if pulled, could unravel the entire garment. Such drama!
So what is Benghazi? It is the place in Libya where the United States maintained two installations — a consulate and a much larger CIA outpost. Both of these were attacked on Sept. 11, 2012, a date of some significance. The assaults, we all now know, were conducted by a jihadist group and were not — as the Obama administration initially maintained — a spur-of-the-moment thing precipitated by the airing of an anti-Muslim video. We also know that the administration either was unsure of the facts or simply didn’t like them. So it knitted together the infamous talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice repeated on all the Sunday talk shows. Aside from “good morning,” little of what she said was true.
President Obama was then really Candidate Obama and he surely did not want the words “terrorist attack” uttered during the presidential campaign. In addition, the CIA and the State Department were in a cat fight and could not agree on the wording of the talking points — or even, from a fair reading of their clashing e-mails, who the fanatical enemy was: al-Qaeda or members of Congress?
In all this, it’s almost possible to forget that four Americans died in Benghazi. The event was a tragedy and it hardly matters, as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vociferously maintained, if the attack occurred spontaneously or was planned. Either way, it was a success for the terrorists and a debacle for the United States.
It is good to find out how this happened — who’s responsible for the inadequate security, etc. — and it is also good to hold the Obama administration accountable for putting out a misleading statement. But the record will show that a thorough report was, in fact, compiled. Its authors were Thomas Pickering, an esteemed retired diplomat, and Adm. Mike Mullen, an equally esteemed retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They found the standard mistakes and snafus — but no crime.
Watergate, though, was a crime. Iran-contra was a crime. Government officials were convicted and some of them went to jail. Fudging a press release is not a crime. Compromising on wording is not a crime. Making a decision — even if wrong — that there was no time to call in the cavalry is not a crime. And having inadequate security is not only not a crime but partly a consequence of congressional budget cuts.
It is not a crime either to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this particular one is constructed of a fetid combination of bad taste and poisonous politics. Dig down a bit and it becomes clear that some — many? — Republicans suspect that Barack Obama and-or Hillary Clinton are capable of letting people die to cover up a terrorist attack. Either that, or this is what they want us to think.
In the end, it all comes down to an irrational and absolutely rabid dislike of Obama that so clouds judgment that utterly preposterous statements are uttered, usually within the precincts of the Fox News studios. This, as you might have guessed, is classic Benghazi Syndrome. There is no known cure.
By: Richard Cohen, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 13, 2013
There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era’s torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I’ve never heard any of them answer: How do the defender’s of “enhanced interrogation” (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since “ethnic cleansing”) define torture? I’ll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration’s torture program on many occasions. Since I haven’t seen the film I can’t say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: “I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.” And why aren’t the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of “stress positions,” which are used to cause excruciating pain without leaving a mark—torture? Here’s the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:
Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.
You see, they had a memo saying that what they were doing wasn’t torture, so there you go. And when the detainee became compliant, they stopped! It obviously can’t be torture if it ends when the subject is broken, right?
Here’s the question I’ve never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn’t include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That’s not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he’d prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That’s the purpose of waterboarding, that’s the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that’s the purpose of stress positions. The “enhanced” techniques that were used weren’t meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.
So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn’t torture, how would its apologists define the term?
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 7, 2013
“An Unpatriotic Strategy”: In Their Baseless Persecution Of Susan Rice, Republican Reputations Are Sinking
With the Republican right persisting in baselesss persecution of Susan Rice, the UN Ambassador who may replace departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they have left President Obama little choice but to move ahead with her nomination. If he backs away from Rice, in the face of what he has called false accusations against her, that display of weakness would undermine his second term before it begins.
The opposition to Rice is cobbled together from the remnants of a failed “October Surprise” election gambit, which began when Mitt Romney sought to smear the president by using the tragic attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In the election’s aftermath, Senate Republicans have fixated on Rice, whom they accuse of misleading the public in television appearances several days after the Sept. 11 incident.
Rice’s supposed offense was to downplay the likelihood that the attack had been perpetrated by al Qaeda terrorists or their local allies, while underlining the idea that it had been inspired by an anti-Muslim video on the Internet. On ABC News’ This Week, she repeated almost precisely the talking points provided to her by the CIA:
Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated. We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo.
And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there. We’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that’s the best information we have at present.
In those remarks, Rice clearly warned against drawing any conclusions from the preliminary information then available. Nevertheless, Senate Republicans led by John McCain (R-AZ) have sought to defame her as a liar, a fool, or worse. The latest insult came on Tuesday from Senator Kelly Ayotte, a junior Republican from New Hampshire with no significant national security experience and little evident grasp of the facts. Tagging along with the embittered McCain and his reliable sidekick Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ayotte made an unprecedented threat to put a “hold” on Rice’s nomination if Obama sends it up to the Hill – the first time in memory that a senator has deployed that privilege against a prospective nominee to head the State Department.
Exactly what the right suspects about Benghazi isn’t clear. Initially, Republicans seem to have hoped that talking up al Qaeda would somehow help Romney and damage Obama. Not the most patriotic strategy, but that was their plan. What they supposedly suspect now remains obscure. Graham mutters darkly that he is “disturbed,” while McCain claims to be “troubled.” The blustering Ayotte has now locked herself in a bunker with these volatile characters, whose motives and behavior are hardly above suspicion.
Whatever their problem, knuckling under to such a puerile challenge would represent an unacceptable defeat for the newly re-elected Obama.
Properly, the Benghazi incident is under investigation by the FBI and the CIA as well as Congressional committees – and what those probes appear to have established so far is that the security arrangements at the consulate never came within the specific purview of the White House. The CIA almost certainly made mistakes and omissions in protecting the consulate, and sadly paid for those errors with the lives of courageous agency officers who died there trying to protect the State Department staff when the compound came under sustained assault from heavily armed jihadi militants.
The notion that Rice or any other administration official intentionally misled the public already has been thoroughly debunked by David Petraeus, the resigned CIA director. Petraeus told a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill, attended by McCain, that Rice had faithfully followed the declassified talking points provided by US intelligence agencies. (McCain promptly fled from reporters when that hearing ended.) Although the president himself had referred to the Benghazi attack as an “act of terror” in the White House Rose Garden, specific information about potential terrorist suspects remained classified for sound investigative reasons.
It isn’t hard to imagine what McCain would say if Rice had accidentally blurted out classified details of the Benghazi probe prematurely on television. In fact, it isn’t necessary to imagine, because not so long ago, he angrily accused the White House of revealing classified information. But in fact, the only damaging leak in the Benghazi matter emerged from the hyperactive mouth of Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Perhaps McCain, Graham, and Ayotte should instead spew their bile on Issa, who has actually abused his authority and trifled with national security. They would be better off, because their reputations — and not Rice’s — will be irreparably damaged if they continue to pursue this vendetta when the president sends up her nomination.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, November 28, 2012
When House Republicans called a hearing in the middle of their long recess, you knew it would be something big, and indeed it was: They accidentally blew the CIA’s cover.
The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was to examine security lapses that led to the killing in Benghazi last month of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others. But in doing so, the lawmakers reminded us why “congressional intelligence” is an oxymoron.
Through their outbursts, cryptic language and boneheaded questioning of State Department officials, the committee members left little doubt that one of the two compounds at which the Americans were killed, described by the administration as a “consulate” and a nearby “annex,” was a CIA base. They did this, helpfully, in a televised public hearing.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) was the first to unmask the spooks. “Point of order! Point of order!” he called out as a State Department security official, seated in front of an aerial photo of the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, described the chaotic night of the attack. “We’re getting into classified issues that deal with sources and methods that would be totally inappropriate in an open forum such as this.”
A State Department official assured him that the material was “entirely unclassified” and that the photo was from a commercial satellite. “I totally object to the use of that photo,” Chaffetz continued. He went on to say that “I was told specifically while I was in Libya I could not and should not ever talk about what you’re showing here today.”
Now that Chaffetz had alerted potential bad guys that something valuable was in the photo, the chairman, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), attempted to lock the barn door through which the horse had just bolted. “I would direct that that chart be taken down,” he said, although it already had been on C-SPAN. “In this hearing room, we’re not going to point out details of what may still in fact be a facility of the United States government or more facilities.”
May still be a facility? The plot thickened — and Chaffetz gave more hints. “I believe that the markings on that map were terribly inappropriate,” he said, adding that “the activities there could cost lives.”
In their questioning and in the public testimony they invited, the lawmakers managed to disclose, without ever mentioning Langley directly, that there was a seven-member “rapid response force” in the compound the State Department was calling an annex. One of the State Department security officials was forced to acknowledge that “not necessarily all of the security people” at the Benghazi compounds “fell under my direct operational control.”
And whose control might they have fallen under? Well, presumably it’s the “other government agency” or “other government entity” the lawmakers and witnesses referred to; Issa informed the public that this agency was not the FBI.
“Other government agency,” or “OGA,” is a common euphemism in Washington for the CIA. This “other government agency,” the lawmakers’ questioning further revealed, was in possession of a video of the attack but wasn’t releasing it because it was undergoing “an investigative process.”
Or maybe they were referring to the Department of Agriculture.
That the Benghazi compound had included a large CIA presence had been reported but not confirmed. The New York Times, for example, had reported that among those evacuated were “about a dozen CIA operatives and contractors.” The paper, like The Washington Post, withheld locations and details of the facilities at the administration’s request.
But on Wednesday, the withholding was on hold.
The Republican lawmakers, in their outbursts, alternated between scolding the State Department officials for hiding behind classified material and blaming them for disclosing information that should have been classified. But the lawmakers created the situation by ordering a public hearing on a matter that belonged behind closed doors.
Republicans were aiming to embarrass the Obama administration over State Department security lapses. But they inadvertently caused a different picture to emerge than the one that has been publicly known: that the victims may have been let down not by the State Department but by the CIA. If the CIA was playing such a major role in these events, which was the unmistakable impression left by Wednesday’s hearing, having a televised probe of the matter was absurd.
The chairman, attempting to close his can of worms, finally suggested that “the entire committee have a classified briefing as to any and all other assets that were not drawn upon but could have been drawn upon” in Benghazi.
Good idea. Too bad he didn’t think of that before putting the CIA on C-SPAN.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 11, 2012