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Judicial Watch: Benghazi Documents Point to White House on Misleading Talking Points

WASHINGTON, DC -- (Marketwired) -- 04/29/14 -- Judicial Watch announced today that on April 18, 2014, it obtained 41 new Benghazi-related State Department documents. They include a newly declassified email showing then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes and other Obama administration public relations officials attempting to orchestrate a campaign to "reinforce" President Obama and to portray the Benghazi consulate terrorist attack as being "rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy." Other documents show that State Department officials initially described the incident as an "attack" a possible kidnap attempt.

The documents were released Friday as result of a June 21, 2013, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed against the Department of State (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of State (No. 1:13-cv-00951)) to gain access to documents about the controversial talking points used by then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice for a series of appearances on television Sunday news programs on September 16, 2012. Judicial Watch had been seeking these documents since October 18, 2012.

The Rhodes email was sent on sent on Friday, September 14, 2012, at 8:09 p.m. with the subject line: "RE: PREP CALL with Susan, Saturday at 4:00 pm ET." The documents show that the "prep" was for Amb. Rice's Sunday news show appearances to discuss the Benghazi attack.

The document lists as a "Goal": "To underscore that these protests are rooted in and Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy."

Rhodes returns to the "Internet video" scenario later in the email, the first point in a section labeled "Top-lines":

[W]e've made our views on this video crystal clear. The United States government had nothing to do with it. We reject its message and its contents. We find it disgusting and reprehensible. But there is absolutely no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence. And we are working to make sure that people around the globe hear that message.

Among the top administration PR personnel who received the Rhodes memo were White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, then-White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, then-White House Deputy Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri, then-National Security Council Director of Communications Erin Pelton, Special Assistant to the Press Secretary Howli Ledbetter, and then-White House Senior Advisor and political strategist Davie Plouffe.

The Rhodes communications strategy email also instructs recipients to portray Obama as "steady and statesmanlike" throughout the crisis. Another of the "Goals" of the PR offensive, Rhodes says, is "[T]o reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges." He later includes as a PR "Top-line" talking point:

I think that people have come to trust that President Obama provides leadership that is 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.

The documents Judicial Watch obtained also include a September 12, 2012, email from former Deputy Spokesman at U.S. Mission to the United Nations Payton Knopf to Susan Rice, noting that at a press briefing earlier that day, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland explicitly stated that the attack on the consulate had been well planned. The email sent by Knopf to Rice at 5:42 pm said:

Responding to a question about whether it was an organized terror attack, Toria said that she couldn't speak to the identity of the perpetrators but that it was clearly a complex attack.

In the days following the Knopf email, Rice appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News and CNN still claiming the assaults occurred "spontaneously" in response to the "hateful video." On Sunday, September 16 Rice told CBS's "Face the Nation:"

But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy -- sparked by this hateful video.

The Judicial Watch documents confirm that CIA talking points, that were prepared for Congress and may have been used by Rice on "Face the Nation" and four additional Sunday talk shows on September 16, had been heavily edited by then-CIA deputy director Mike Morell. 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. On the SVTS, 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.

The documents obtained by Judicial Watch also contain numerous emails sent during the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic facility. The contemporaneous and dramatic emails describe the assault as an "attack":

  • September 11, 2012, 6:41 PM -- Senior Advisor Eric Pelofsky, to Susan Rice:

    As reported, the Benghazi compound came under attack and it took a bit of time for the 'Annex' colleagues and Libyan February 17 brigade to secure it. One of our colleagues was killed -- IMO Sean Smith. Amb Chris Stevens, who was visiting Benghazi this week is missing. U.S. and Libyan colleagues are looking for him...

At 8:51 pm, Pelofsky tells Rice and others that "Post received a call from a person using an [sic] RSO phone that Chris was given saying the caller was with a person matching Chris's description at a hospital and that he was alive and well. Of course, if the he were alive and well, one could ask why he didn't make the call himself."

Later that evening, Pelofsky emailed Rice that he was "very, very worried. In particular that he [Stevens] is either dead or this was a concerted effort to kidnap him." Rice replied, "God forbid."

  • September 11, 2012, 4:49 PM -- State Department press officer John Fogarty reporting on "Libya update from Beth Jones":

    Beth Jones [Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs] just spoke with DCM Tripoli Greg Hicks, who advised a Libyan militia (we now know this is the 17th Feb brigade, as requested by Emb office) is responding to the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi."

Material is blacked out (or redacted) in many emails.

"Now we know the Obama White House's chief concern about the Benghazi attack was making sure that President Obama looked good," said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. "And these documents undermine the Obama administration's narrative that it thought the Benghazi attack had something to do with protests or an Internet video. 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."

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