Do released talking points prove Rice went off the reservation?
Following a classified briefing with former CIA Director David Petraeus Friday morning, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters it was clear to her that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was being unfairly pilloried for her appearance on a gaggle of Sunday news shows, in which Rice linked the attacks to a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.
The attacks, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, have now been linked conclusively to the terrorist organization Al Qaeda or its affiliates, members of Congress said Friday after the briefing.
In discussing the attacks in their immediate aftermath, Rice had stuck to unclassified talking points that had first been vetted and approved by the CIA and a cross-section of the intelligence community, Feinstein said.
“She did what I would have done and anyone else would have done. She said ‘I’m going on a show, what talking points can I use,’ and you would get an unclassified version,” Feinstein said.
Reading from an emailed document that had been provided her, Feinstein recited three of the initial talking points in response to a reporter’s question.
They are as follows:
- The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the United States Embassy in Cairo and devolved into a direct assault against United States diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
- This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.
- The investigation is ongoing, and the United States government is working with Libyan authorities to bring justice to those responsible for the deaths of United States citizens.
While these talking points promote a view of the attacks that downplays links to terrorist activity, they also emphasize the preliminary nature of these findings and leave open the possibility that the narrative could change.
Compare that tightly crafted account with what Rice told NBC’s Meet the Press five days later on Sept. 16:
MS. SUSAN RICE (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): Thank you, good to be here.
(DAVID) GREGORY: The images as you well know are jarring to Americans watching all of this play out this week, and we’ll share the map of all of this turmoil with our viewers to show the scale of it across not just the Arab world, but the entire Islamic world and flashpoints as well. In Egypt, of course, the protests outside the U.S. embassy there that Egyptian officials were slow to put down. This weekend in Pakistan, protests as well there. More anti-American rage. Also protests against the drone strikes. In Yemen, you also had arrests and some deaths outside of our U.S. embassy there. How much longer can Americans expect to see these troubling images and these protests go forward?
MS. RICE: Well, David, we can’t predict with any certainty. But let’s remember what has transpired over the last several days. This is a response to a hateful and offensive video that was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Obviously, our view is that there is absolutely no excuse for violence and that– what has happened is condemnable, but this is a– a spontaneous reaction to a video, and it’s not dissimilar but, perhaps, on a slightly larger scale than what we have seen in the past with The Satanic Verses with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Now, the United States has made very clear and the president has been very plain that our top priority is the protection of American personnel in our facilities and bringing to justice those who…
GREGORY: All right.
MS. RICE: …attacked our facility in Benghazi.
Later in the interview, Rice emphasizes that “we have decimated Al Qaeda” though it is likely she was being briefed at the time of Al Qaeda’s possible or likely involvement in the attack.
While several other appearances Rice made (find the transcripts here, here, and here) stuck closer to the assigned talking points, Rice also seemed to blur the line between opinion and certainty on CNN’s State of the Union, telling host Candy Crowley in no uncertain terms that a video was behind the week’s violence:
RICE: Well, Candy, first of all, let’s recall what has happened in the last several days. There was a hateful video that was disseminated on the internet. It had nothing to do with the United States government and it’s one that we find disgusting and reprehensible. It’s been offensive to many, many people around the world.
That sparked violence in various parts of the world, including violence directed against western facilities including our embassies and consulates. That violence is absolutely unacceptable, it’s not a response that one can ever condone when it comes to such a video. And we have been working very closely and, indeed, effectively with the governments in the region and around the world to secure our personnel, secure our embassy, condemn the violent response to this video.
And, frankly, we’ve seen these sorts of incidents in the past. We’ve seen violent responses to “Satanic Verses.” We’ve seen violent responses to the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in an evil way. So this is something we’ve seen in the past, and we expect that it’s possible that these kinds of things could percolate into the future. What we’re focused on is securing our personnel, securing our facilities.
Further down, Rice characterizes Benghazi as “that horrific incident where some mob was hijacked by a handful of extremists.”
On Friday, Feinstein was one of a number of Senate Democrats to speak out on Rice’s behalf, saying the ambassador was being unfairly assassinated for correctly representing the administration’s viewpoint.
But Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said Rice had to answer for her own interpretation of events.
“The problem with what Susan Rice said was not, if she had stuck to the talking points, were they correct. They were,” Chambliss said. “She went beyond that. And she even mentioned that, under the leadership of Barack Obama, that we had decimated Al Qaeda. She knew at that point in time that (Al Qaeda) was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens.”