Rice in 2012.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Why Susan Rice, Not Hillary Clinton, Took the Fall for Benghazi

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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On Benghazi day, let's spare a few thoughts for President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice. Yes, the headlines all say the House Select Committee on Benghazi couldn't find any new dirt on Hillary Clinton. But the woman who almost replaced her as secretary of state did not come out looking very prepared.

Back in September 2012, Rice was ambassador to the United Nations and was President Barack Obama's first choice to replace Clinton as secretary of state. But her nomination was scuttled after she appeared on the Sunday news shows to discuss that month's attacks on a U.S. special mission and CIA annex in Benghazi. Rice stuck to the talking points she had been given and said the attack evolved out of a protest against an offensive internet video.

Rice's appearances on the Sunday shows crystallized an administration narrative about the Benghazi attacks that was false and came back to bite them. More than anything else, it is responsible for a political controversy that has spanned Obama's second term in office. So it's worth looking at exactly what happened nearly four years ago in the middle of a presidential campaign -- a moment when the U.S. government realized Libya was coming undone.  

It's important to distinguish from the outset what Benghazi is, and what it is not. The final report from the Republicans on the Benghazi committee did not find for example that Obama had nixed a rescue attempt or that Clinton personally disapproved security measures for Benghazi before the attack. It concluded that various rescue teams waited far too long before deploying to Libya, but it did not show the president called off these teams.  

The Obama administration's primary sin was that it didn't level with the American people about what had happened in Benghazi. The narrative triumphed over the facts. Much of this was known before. For example, White House messaging guru Ben Rhodes had drafted talking points which urged U.S. officials to emphasize that the attack stemmed from a protest of the video and not a failure in policy. But the final report adds some important details on this.

Let's start with Rice. According to testimony from Rhodes, she was his third choice to go on the Sunday shows. Initially he tried Clinton, who did not respond, and then Tom Donilon, who was Obama's national security adviser. Rhodes told the committee that neither of them did the Sunday shows often.  

Rice was not well-prepared for this task. Not only was she not a participant in the senior-level meetings to respond to the Benghazi attack, she wasn't even briefed by an intelligence analyst before appearing on the Sunday shows. She told the select committee that she was unaware at the time that the CIA maintained an annex at the Benghazi compound. Rhodes and senior Obama adviser David Plouffe briefed Rice instead.

The talking points that informed Rice's appearances after the Benghazi attacks were based on talking points developed initially by the CIA for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But as the report shows, those talking points were not produced with much analytic rigor. Indeed, the line about the internet video protests was based initially on an editing error in an intelligence report from the day after the attack.

The intelligence analysts initially had said the attackers in Benghazi were inspired by protests in Cairo, but a heading in one of the early intelligence reports referenced protests in Benghazi. The top CIA analyst who drafted that report said none of his analysts were "focused on the protests" and that they did not believe it was germane to understanding the attacks.

This would appear to let Rhodes and Rice off the hook. It was the CIA's fault in an editing error. But the White House also earns some blame as well. At the very least, they were incurious and seized on a politically convenient analysis. Many other intelligence products produced in the days after the Benghazi attack made no mention of a protest and did discuss the clear links between the attackers and al-Qaeda. The CIA station chief in Libya sent messages back to headquarters along these lines. Mid-level State Department officials e-mailed each other in disbelief about what Rice said on the Sunday shows. Clinton herself talked about the al-Qaeda links to the attackers in private conversations with Egyptian and Libyan officials as well as a personal e-mail to her daughter Chelsea Clinton. 

Obama's defenders might say that all of this is how the game is played. There is some truth to this. In democratic societies, it's not enough to just present the public with facts. You have to string those facts together into a story in order to persuade people to support your policies. Narratives make governing possible.

But narratives are not everything. And this is a lesson that Obama has yet to learn. Whether it's his attorney general excising Omar Mateen's references to Islamic State in his 911 calls, or the White House's decision to call terror rampages "mass shootings," the narrative often seems more important than the policy it's meant to sell. Nearly four years ago in Benghazi, the president's narrative about terrorism and Libya went up in flames. The story his administration told about a protest and an internet video couldn't save it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net