Here's How Newly-Released Benghazi Emails Could Actually Embarrass the White House

National Security Adviser Susan Rice National Security Adviser Susan Rice Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the White House quickly jumped from questions about the cause of the attack to blaming the incendiary YouTube video promoted by Florida pastor Terry Jones.

Last May, a set of emails was leaked by opponents of President Obama outlining the development of the talking points then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice used in a series of television appearances following the September 11, 2012 attack. The White House then released a more complete set of messages, effectively neutralizing critique of how the talking points were created.

New documents, obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch by a Freedom of Information Act request, include a different set of talking points created by Obama advisor Ben Rhodes and sent to administration officials including spokesman Jay Carney. At the top, it outlines four goals:

We've highlighted the most important point: Rhodes' assertion that the protests "are rooted in an Internet video."

At the time this email was sent — about 8 p.m. on Friday, September 14 — a separate set of emails was bounding back-and-forth between the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, and the White House. Those emails, the ones that were the subject of the discussion last May, offer a much different and much more reserved description of what prompted the attack. An email sent from the CIA to the White House at about 5 p.m. included this language:

The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex. … On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.

Over the next night, much of those specifics were stripped out by CIA director Michael Morell. But when Rhodes sent his proposed talking points, the nuance of "currently available information" was lost.

The new documents also include an email sent from a staffer for Rice to a group of employees in her office. It walks through a conversation the State Department's Victoria Nuland held on background with members of the press on the Wednesday after the attacks. In that conversation, Nuland was similarly vague. "Toria said that she couldn't speak to the identity of the perpetrators but that it was clearly a complex attack," the email reads. When Nuland was asked if the attack was linked to the video disparaging the Prophet Muhammed, "she said she could not confirm a connect as we simply don't know — and we won't know until there's an investigation."

What Rhodes was apparently advocating was to eliminate that nuance. And when Rice appeared on Fox News that Sunday with Chris Wallace, she was asked to respond to a statement made by Carney.

CARNEY (on video): This is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive.

WALLACE: You don't really believe that?

RICE: Chris, absolutely I believe that. In fact, it is the case. We had the evolution of the Arab spring over the last many months. But what sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful very offensive video that has offended many people around the world.

One point of critique on the Benghazi affair has long been that the White House wanted to play up the role of the YouTube video in order to deflect critique of their policies. It's not clear if Rhodes had information about the attack (or believed he had information about the attack) that isn't reflected in the documents, but it seems clear that he overstepped the caution that was exhibited by other members of the administration — perhaps leading to Rice's strong and much-derided assertion that the attack was in response to the video. It was his job to protect the White House, but it's likely that this argument has caused much more trouble for Obama than it prevented.

If you'd really like to fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, by the way, the new documents have you covered there, too. On September 27, the key actors in the White House's response team passed around a news article from FoxNews.com which indicated that the administration knew by September 12 that the video didn't play a role. All of the discussion about that article was redacted.

Correction: This post originally stated that Jones created the video at issue. He merely promoted it.

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