WASHINGTON—When former acting CIA director Michael Morell testified before lawmakers earlier this month, he insisted the White House only made three minor changes to the since-debunked talking points about the 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Morell told the House intelligence committee that politics played no role in the way he edited the talking points then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice used during five national television interviews.
It now appears White House staff considered almost nothing but politics. A Washington, D.C.,-based watchdog group on Tuesday released declassified emails showing the White House played an integral role in crafting the false message with the goal to “reinforce” President Barack Obama and “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.”
“Now we know the Obama White House’s chief concern about the Benghazi attack was making sure that President Obama looked good,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “Given the explosive material in these documents, it is no surprise that we had to go to federal court to pry them loose from the Obama State Department.”
Judicial Watch first filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 18, 2012—more than two weeks before President Obama’s reelection. The organization sued the State Department in June 2013 and finally obtained the documents on April 18.
Ben Rhodes, then-White House deputy strategic communications adviser, instructed Susan Rice, now Obama’s national security adviser, to portray the president as “steady and statesmanlike. There are always going to be challenges that emerge around the world, and time and again, he has shown that we can meet them.”
Rhodes, writing in an email to top administration officials about Rice’s preparation, outlined their top goal: “To reinforce the president and administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
House lawmakers specifically asked Morell, who now works at a Washington consulting firm co-owned by Hillary Clinton’s spokesman, about Rhodes’ role in crafting the talking points. Morell insisted no one at the White House played a major role and took most of the responsibility for heavy editing, although he denied blaming the obscure YouTube video repeatedly cited by the Obama administration as the impetus behind the attack.
According to one email: “The first draft apparently seemed unsuitable … because they seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy. … Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy hand to editing them. He noted that he would be happy to work with [then deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton] Jake Sullivan and Rhodes to develop appropriate talking points.”
Rice has maintained her statements were based on the best information the administration had at the time, but emails also show Rice was aware of the nature of the attack on the day it happened. At 9:06 p.m. on Sept. 11, senior adviser Eric Pelofsky wrote to Rice that he was “very, very worried” that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was either dead or the attack was a coordinated effort to kidnap him. “God forbid,” Rice responded.
The following day, Payton Knopf, deputy spokesman for the United States at the UN, noted in an email to Rice that State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said “she couldn’t speak to the identity of the perpetrators but that it was clearly a complex attack.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney was one of the top White House officials who received Rhodes’ talking points memo sent two days before Rice’s television appearances. Last year, Carney told reporters the talking points were “based on only what the intelligence community could say for sure it thought it knew, and that is what was generated by the intelligence community—by the CIA.”