Ambassador Rice, Designated Non-Expert on Benghazi

by CLAUDIA ROSETT November 19, 2012

Finally, during his first press conference in eight months, President Obama has confirmed it was specifically "at the request of the White House" that on the Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist onslaught in Benghazi, his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, appeared as the face of his administration on five TV news talk shows to discuss this debacle. Rice told the American public that the attack was the product of a "spontaneous" mob reacting to the "hateful video," all of which just happened to get hijacked by "a small handful of heavily armed mobsters."

That was a grossly misleading message, defying common sense and contradicting information we now know was richly available to the State Department, to others in the administration, and presumably to the president himself. It fed Obama's narrative of an al-Qaeda in retreat, while ignoring the realities that a known al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, had already claimed credit; that an array of jihadi terrorist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, had been recruiting and training in the region; that American personnel in Libya had been pleading for better security; and that the attack itself had the hallmarks not of an ad hoc mob, but of an organized assault.

With good reason, Rice's TV blitz drew plenty of criticism. Nor should it excuse Rice, or her boss, that on all five networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN) she qualified her remarks with such phrases as "our current best assessment" and "the information that we have at present." As I noted at the time, in a post titled "Rice on Libya: Obfuscating from Behind," such locutions left the administration wiggle room to adjust its story as reporters - chiefly at Fox News - began to eke out facts the administration had not deigned to share with the public. But the main message broadcast by Rice - the takeaway, as they say - was not remotely that this was an organized act of jihadi terrorism, but that it was just some formless mob, a random event that happened to spin out of control.

With a remarkable inversion of logic, Obama in his Wednesday press conference went on to defend Rice, on grounds that she simply appeared on all those TV shows at the request of the White House and "gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her." That ought to raise the questions of what intelligence, exactly, was provided to Rice? Either the administration, in briefing her, withheld critical details, and Rice failed to exercise enough basic sense to ask obvious questions of her own administration before going on the air. Or, she was provided with important information about the terrorist nature of the attack, information we now know was already available to her boss, which she chose to ignore. Either way, the answers aren't likely to be pretty. There was enormous disregard here for the public right and need to know that it was terrorism, not a random mob, behind the Sept. 11 destruction of an American diplomatic post and the murder of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Benghazi.

Even more incredibly, President Obama in his press conference went on to say that it is "outrageous" to criticize Rice - "the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi."

Correct, as far as it goes, that Rice apparently had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 horrors as they played out that day and night in Benghazi and in Washington (where the president's doings for most of that interval remain to this day unexplained and undocumented). While Rice had plenty to do with obtaining the consent last year of the Arab League at the UN for the U.S. to lead from behind in the ousting of Moammar Qaddafi, the U.S. dealings on the ground in Benghazi, 2012, were not her responsibility. She was not in the relevant chain of command. It was not her turf.

So, why on earth, on Sunday, Sept. 17, with the spotlight on Benghazi, did Obama's White House dispatch Rice - "the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi" - as its TV diva of information on the Benghazi attack?

Obama, in his effusive defense of Rice, during his Wednesday press conference, denounced Rice's critics as beating up unfairly on his UN ambassador: "When they go after the UN ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me," said the president. That all sounds very aggrieved and gallant. But it is, in its way, as misleading as Rice's own statements on the TV talk shows. There's every reason to infer that in the weird hall of mirrors with which the administration has shielded itself over the Benghazi attack, Rice's role has been to serve not as an easy target, but as an extraneous target - a briefly anointed expert, whose misleading statements are now excused by the president on grounds that she was no expert at all. That's an odd way for the White House to treat the American public on matters vital to national security. Where were the officials who did bear responsibility for Benghazi 2012? In this much, at least, the president's rhetorical posturing in defense of Rice does include one point that needs to be taken seriously: The real questions should go to him. Why, out of all the officials in his administration, did he dispatch at that critical moment an ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi? What was that meant to achieve?

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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