State Department employees were surprised to see then-UN ambassador Susan Rice appear on Sunday talk shows blaming the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on an internet video, a report released Tuesday revealed.
Rice’s comments were “met with shock and disbelief by State Department employees” who worried about White House involvement in the way the attack was being characterised to the American public, according to the report released by the Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi.
The report was released one day after House Democrats released a preemptive report designed to blunt the blow of the Republican document.
The committee, convened to investigate the events surrounding the deaths of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, contended that White House aides had an unusual level of involvement in the messaging after the attack. Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State and is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has been heavily criticised for blaming the attack on protests of an internet video that Libyans found offensive.
In the days after the attack, Rice echoed this message on Sunday shows such as “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press.” State Department employees worried about how her comments might be perceived abroad.
Gregory Hicks, who was the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, Libya, told the committee that Rice’s comments contradicted those of Libyan officials who pointed to terrorist links to the attack.
“My jaw hit the floor as I watched this,” Hicks said, referring to Rice’s television appearances. “I’ve never been — I have been a professional diplomat for 22 years. I have never been as embarrassed in my life, in my career as on that day. There have been other times when I’ve been embarrassed, but that’s the most embarrassing moment of my career.”
Hicks wasn’t alone in his criticism of Rice.
The senior Libya desk officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern affairs wrote in an email to colleagues: “I think Rice was off the reservation on this one,” according to the report. The deputy director for the bureau’s Office of Press and Public Diplomacy responded: “Off the reservation on five networks!”
The bureau’s senior adviser for strategic communications assigned blame to the White House.
“Luckily there’s enough in her language to fudge exactly what she said/meant,” he wrote, referring to Rice. “WH [White House] very worried about the politics. This was all their doing.”
The deputy director for the State Department’s Office of Maghreb Affairs was also surprised that Rice drew a connection to the video.
“The description of what was said — and, again, I didn’t watch the program myself — it just sounded more definitive of what potentially had happened,” she testified.
She continued: “I was surprised in the way that they were described in the press clips, that there was an indication that there was some connection to the anti-Muslim video of concern that had been circulating online, that there was some connection to that. In the press clips that I read, I remember seeing, like — ok.”
On a Saturday-evening conference call to prep Rice for her appearances on Sunday talk shows, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, and David Plouffe, a senior adviser to the president, helped brief Rice on what to say.
The report describes Rice’s testimony on the call:
“Plouffe had previously served as the campaign manager for the President’s 2008 presidential campaign. While Rhodes testified Plouffe would ‘normally’ appear on the Sunday show prep calls, Rice testified she did not recall him being on prior calls and did not understand why he was on the call in this instance.”
The report contended that no State Department, Defence Department, CIA, or FBI employees were on the call aside from members of Rice’s staff.
As more information about the Benghazi attack emerged, it became clear that it likely wasn’t the result of spontaneous protests gone too far. Al Qaeda-linked terrorist agents have been blamed for the attack, but it remains unclear whether the attack was ordered or planned by Al Qaeda central leadership.
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