Why Benghazi talking points make US government seem like Dunder Mifflin

Let's put aside for a moment who did what to the talking points on Benghazi last September and focus just on the editing process, which could have come from an episode of 'The Office,' it seems.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A portion of pages of e-mails that the White House released Wednesday that document how the Obama administration crafted its public talking points immediately following the Sept. 11, 2012, deadly attack on a US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, are seen at the White House in Washington.

The White House on Wednesday released 100 pages of e-mails that detail the editing which produced the initial government talking points on last September’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Our read on this drove of internal documents? There’s no bureaucracy like a classified bureaucracy. While lots of lawmakers and pundits have argued over who was responsible for particular changes, there’s been much less attention paid to the editing process as a whole. The e-mails arguably depict that process as lengthy, ad hoc, contentious, and ineffective at producing information with any added value.

In fact, by the end, the nation’s national security team seems more than a bit like Dunder Mifflin, the dysfunctional paper company that’s at the heart of the TV series “The Office.”

Here’s how the Benghazi talking points story arc played out:

THE FIRST EFFORT SOUNDED FINE. As distributed by the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs at around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, the talking points were a mix of the obvious and the reasonable, though there was one mistake at the beginning.

They began by noting that, at that time, the CIA believed the attacks were “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo.” This was wrong, but it’s one of the only talking points that no one ever tried to edit.

The document added that “this assessment may change.” That’s pretty safe to assume, right?

Then the points said “the crowd was almost certainly a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society.” That’s also safe to assume, if not blindingly obvious.

“That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda participated in the attack,” the CIA continued. Again, given the group’s spread, that’s likely. But “know”? OK, maybe that needs changing.

Then the third talking point: “Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia.” Note the reference to press reports, which lawmakers could read at the time. The CIA itself at no point said this extremist group was involved.

Then the CIA noted that the “wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya” probably made the attacks worse. Duh. The agency ended by noting the public fact that there had been previous attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.

UNDERLINGS MADE IT WORSE. Right away other intelligence officers started messing with this template. Shortly after the first draft was circulated, the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis noted that “warnings” should be added.

Shortly thereafter, intelligence analysts added to the first point, putting in a sentence that read “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.”

What was the point of that? It is hard to see this add as anything other than rear-end covering. This was emphasized by another addition further down: “The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya.”

The e-mails show that this sparked a lively interagency debate as to whether the CIA was trying to make the Utica office – sorry, the State Department – look bad. That was the point of the now famous e-mail from State spokesman Victoria Nuland that lawmakers would use the proposed wording to “beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.”

HIGHER-UPS THEN MADE IT USELESS. Of course, as “The Office” teaches us, it doesn’t really matter what the underlings do, because they’re just moving the chairs around waiting for the powers-that-be to arrive.

Given the way State and the CIA were tussling over the talking points, White House deputy national security director Ben Rhodes called a timeout, scheduling a Saturday meeting at which the problems could be resolved “in a way that respects all of the relevant equities.”

The results of this meeting aren’t reported in the e-mail chain. But the documents released by the White House include a copy of the talking points that is heavily edited by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell.

Mr. Morell crossed out the disputed CIA “warning” sections. But then he went further, ditching entire sections about the press reports on Ansar al Sharia, the possible involvement of extremists linked to Al Qaeda, and even the wide availability of weapons in Libya. Given the nature of the violence that ousted Muammar Qaddafi, isn’t the weapons thing a given? Taking it out is like taking out a reference to Libya as full of sand.

The remaining talking point language was bare bones. This is what the CIA ended up giving to lawmakers who were looking for guidance. In essence, they said that attacks were likely inspired by protests at the Embassy in Cairo (wrong), that that assessment might change “as more information is collected” (obvious) and that the investigation is ongoing (redundant).

One last point: finally on Saturday afternoon, then-director of the CIA David Petraeus weighed in. (Why does the head of the nation’s preeminent human spy agency take the time to review stuff like this? That’s what chiefs of staff are for.) His conclusion was that he’d “just as soon not use this,” given its lack of information, but that he knew it wasn’t his call.

“This is certainly not what [Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Dutch] Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” wrote Mr. Petraeus. “Regardless, thx for the great work.

In other words, this is awful, but gosh you guys did a good job. Doesn’t that sound like “The Office” Scranton branch manager Michael Scott, aka Steve Carroll?

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