By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — If Republicans succeed in turning the Benghazi “scandal” from a nothingburger into a Double Big Mac, the Obama White House can blame its own secrecy and obsessive control over information.
On Monday afternoon, a White House press briefing was dominated for a third time by questions about Benghazi since an email was released last week showing that the White House was more involved than previously acknowledged in shaping the way Susan Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, spoke on TV about the September 2012 attack on U.S. personnel in Libya.
“Does the White House plan to cooperate with the House Select Committee on Benghazi?” The Associated Press’ Julie Pace asked.
“Don’t you feel like you need to get that message out more strongly, that it wasn’t a politicization on the White House’s part after the fact?” inquired Michelle Kosinski of CNN.
On it went for the better part of an hour, fueled by House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement of a Benghazi select committee to be led by the showboating second-term Rep. Trey Gowdy, a tea party Republican from South Carolina. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney shrugged, grinned and parried, but recognized that he would not be able to make the story go away. “We can talk about this as much as you want in this room, but it’s not going to change the facts,” he said.
As I’ve argued before, Benghazi doesn’t qualify as a scandal because the Republican allegations, even if true, don’t amount to much. It is indeed scandalous that weak security allowed the killings to occur, and that the perpetrators still haven’t been brought to justice. But instead, Republicans are focusing on Rice’s TV talking points, under the theory that she emphasized the role of a provocative video and street protests so the violence wouldn’t disprove President Obama’s contention before the 2012 election that terrorists were being defeated.
Even if that were so — and even if you ignore CIA testimony saying Rice’s statements were based on the intelligence community’s assessment — within days of the ambassador’s appearance all kinds of administration officials were identifying Benghazi as a terrorist attack. There was nothing gained politically by Rice suggesting otherwise.
But the White House unwittingly gave the matter new life by disobeying the first rule of crisis management: Get all information out there, quickly. A State Department email, made public last week in response to a conservative group’s Freedom of Information Act request, made it look as if the White House had something to hide. The email, which hadn’t been provided to congressional investigators, was from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes from Sept. 14, 2012, and titled “PREP CALL with Susan.” Rhodes wanted her “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Carney says that email was about Middle East protests generally, not Benghazi specifically. Regardless, he and his colleagues are paying a heavy price for not putting it out sooner.
On top of that, the whole flap over Rice and the “talking points” was caused largely by the White House’s attempt to control tightly the dissemination of information. Rice’s appearance on all five major Sunday news shows on Sept. 16, 2012, was a byproduct of the administration’s reluctance to subject senior officials to scrutiny. The networks had asked for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for that Sunday, but as Politico’s Glenn Thrush reported last year, Clinton wasn’t offered, and neither was national security adviser Tom Donilon nor CIA Director David Petraeus.
Any of those three more senior officials, closer to the situation, might have offered a more nuanced assessment and avoided the conflagration Rice’s scripted response caused.
On Monday, when reporters asked about the new Benghazi committee, Carney noted that seven committees had already held 13 hearings and 50 briefings on the subject and gone through 25,000 pages of documents. He spoke, accurately, of the “highly partisan” nature of the probes. But it didn’t help him.
“That doesn’t answer the question of whether you’re going to cooperate with the committee or not,” said AP’s Pace.
Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics: “The administration is not going to cooperate?”
The Wall Street Journal’s Carol Lee: “Do you see it as a legitimate investigation?”
Following up to a question about the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, CBS’ Bill Plante asked: “Would it be impolite to point out that that doesn’t answer (the) question?”
“It would be,” Carney replied.
Regarding Benghazi, it is also impolite — but necessary — to point out that Carney and his colleagues’ opacity made their Benghazi problem worse.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.