Susan Rice not at fault in Benghazi attacks

So it turns out that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, before a group of leading Senate Republicans decided that she was evil incarnate, a top contender to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, had nothing to do with formulating the White House’s response to the fatal attacks last year at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

You could be forgiven for believing otherwise. In fact, you could be forgiven for believing that Rice had been personally assigned by President Barack Obama to pull a guard-duty shift at the mission that night but slept through her assignment, given the level of hatred subsequently directed her way.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, among others, argued for weeks that Rice was a crucial cog in a huge conspiracy to hide the facts of Benghazi from the American people. The truth, as they saw it, was that the administration was desperate to blame the tragedy on rioters angered about an anti-Muslim video, rather than a terrorist attack by extremists with links to al-Qaida, because the president saw his anti- terrorism accomplishments as an important advantage in his re- election bid.

The senators focused their wrath on Rice because she was the designated spokeswoman for the administration on the Sunday morning news shows soon after the attacks. (How she drew that short straw should be the subject of another inquiry.)

Here’s what Graham said about Rice at a news conference in November: “Somebody has got to start paying a price around this place. I don’t think she deserves to be promoted. There are a lot of qualified people in this country the president could pick” for secretary of State, “but I am dead-set on making sure we don’t promote anybody that was an essential player in the Benghazi debacle.”

Essential player, huh? Rice actually had nothing to do with the writing and editing of the talking points she delivered that Sunday.

They were a product of the intelligence community; they originated in a request by members of Congress to David Petraeus, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, for an unclassified version of the summary of events he had presented to them on Sept. 14. The talking points were edited and re-edited, then sent to the State Department, whose spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, read them. In his New York Times column, David Brooks noted that the talking points — each iteration of them, in fact — stated that the attacks were inspired by protests in Cairo, and that al-Qaida-linked radicals had participated in the attacks. Brooks said Nuland “was just kicking the process up to the policy-maker level.”

The day before Rice’s fateful talk-show appearances, there was more haggling over what the talking points should say, and they were watered down further.

And this is where Rice, the “essential player,” enters the picture. She was presented with the talking points at about 8 p.m. Saturday, and summarized them on air hours later. She got ahead of the talking points by explicitly linking the attacks to protests over the anti-Muslim video, but that’s about it: Her crime was simply to lean on a document that was produced in a chaotic atmosphere by bureaucrats working with imperfect information and perhaps some turf to protect.

I’ve seen zero evidence to suggest that Rice had any hand in the formulation of these talking points. If I see such evidence, I’ll certainly let you know.

I don’t expect that Graham will apologize to Rice for accusing her of engaging in an enormous conspiracy, when all she seems to have done is take the consensus of several government agencies and present it publicly. But you would hope Graham would think twice before threatening again to stop her advancement in government.

One larger point: It’s interesting to watch the Washington scandal machine destroy people for making mistakes (Victoria Nuland has become the new Susan Rice), but it would be actually useful if, instead of trying to turn Benghazi into Watergate — which it isn’t — Republicans in Congress would spend a bit more energy thinking about ways to protect American diplomats and spies in dangerous places, and on making those places less dangerous.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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