Bob Woodward compares Benghazi with Watergate. Is he right?

The similarities: line-by-line edits of what to tell the public, says Bob Woodward, the media's authority on all things Watergate. Regarding the White House Benghazi edits, they show pressure 'in the system not to tell the truth' about what happened, he said Friday.

Courtesy of Chris Usher/CBS News/Reuters/File
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward appears on 'Face the Nation' in Washington, D.C., in March. Woodward, the media's authority on all things Watergate, compared Benghazi to Watergate during a Friday morning appearance on MSNBC’s 'Morning Joe.'

Bob Woodward compared Benghazi to Watergate during a Friday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

The famous Washington Post reporter and former antagonist of President Richard Nixon said the US government’s editing of talking points used by public officials in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, is “a very serious issue.”

“I would not dismiss Benghazi,” Mr. Woodward said.

Woodward’s own main talking point was that he believed there are similarities between the process used to produce the Benghazi talking points and Nixon’s release of edited transcripts of the White House tapes.

Citing the lengthy e-mail chain detailing the production of the talking points, released by the Obama administration earlier this week, the Watergate press hero said that in the wake of the Libyan tragedy “everyone in the government is saying, ‘Oh, let’s not tell the public that terrorists were involved, people connected to Al Qaeda. Let’s not tell the public that there were warnings.’ ”

Forty years ago, Nixon went line by line through his tape transcripts and made his own edits.

“He personally went through them and said, ‘Let’s not tell this, let’s not show this,’ ” said Woodward on “Morning Joe."

Nixon, of course, was trying to deflate the increasing public and congressional pressure for him to release the tapes themselves. He wasn’t successful. The tapes revealed the extent of his involvement with the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up.

As to Benghazi, Woodward concluded that the edits “show the hydraulic pressure that was in the system not to tell the truth.”

Is Woodward right to make this comparison? After all, he is the media’s official arbiter of all things Watergate, and his words here carry special weight.

Well, it’s certainly possible that he’s hit upon the reason the talking points got changed around. But having read the 100 pages of e-mails on the editing process ourselves, we’d say it’s also possible that he’s jumping to conclusions. For at least some of the officials involved in the process, the reason to take out references to terrorists and Al Qaeda was not to hide the truth, but because they did not know what the truth was.

For instance, early in the editing process Stephen Preston, the CIA’s general counsel, e-mailed talking-point participants that “in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with statements as to who did this, etc. – even internally, not to mention for public release.”

And the scrubbed “warnings” Woodward referred to were fairly vague references to past CIA internal statements. The Post journalist may be right that the public should have heard about them. State Department officials, though, were transparently annoyed that the spy agency was trying to cover its rear end at their expense.

Look, things don’t have to be as bad as Watergate to be important malfeasance. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein made that point earlier this week on his A Plain Blog About Politics.

But loosely comparing current scandals with Watergate is to forget the full extent of the Nixon-era scandal, wrote Mr. Bernstein in a post titled, “You Call That a Cover-Up?”

In Watergate the cover-up was essentially personally directed by the president, overseen by the White House chief of staff, and run by the White House counsel, Bernstein writes. They concocted a false story, destroyed important evidence, and raised hush money used to attempt to buy the silence of underlings who were facing jail time.

Oh, and the president of the United States ordered the CIA to falsely tell the FBI that national security was involved in the Watergate mess, so the FBI needed to pull back its investigation.

By the way, the Watergate hearings began 40 years ago on this date. Bernstein has been writing a fascinating series of pieces outlining the unfolding of the Watergate scandal day by day, as if it were occurring in real time. You can read that to catch up on the bad old days and decide if today compares.

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