USA Today Blowing Smoke on Benghazi ‘Smoking Gun’

Smoking gun (cc photo: Seabright Hoffman)

What USA Today’s report was not. (cc photo: Seabright Hoffman)

USA Today‘s top headline yesterday (4/30/14) was “GOP Calls New Benghazi E-Mail ‘Smoking Gun.'”

What the memo actually proves is that “scandal” is defined as any deviation from the fantasy world jointly created by the Republican Party and its media accomplices.

USA Today‘s Oren Dorell begins:

An e-mail released Tuesday that Republicans called “a smoking gun” shows a White House official wanted the 2012 assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, blamed on a protest that never happened there.

First off, that’s not what the memo says. The line in question, from a memo by national security staffer Benjamin Rhodes, says that in a round of upcoming interviews national security adviser Susan Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

“These protests”–meaning the protests against a video ridiculing Mohammed, the founder of Islam, that had sprung up around the Muslim world and were ongoing at the time that the September 14, 2012, email was sent. The memo goes on to talk about Yemen and Egypt, places where violent protests had continued subsequent to the Benghazi attack.

Oren Dorell

USA Today’s Oren Dorell

Not until the following page, some 12 paragraphs later, is Libya specifically mentioned, when Rhodes refers to cooperation with new Arab governments: “You saw that in Libya, where there’s been full cooperation with the United States and an outpouring of support for Chris Stevens and the work that he did.”

So the “protest”–“protests,” actually–that Rhodes were talking about certainly happened and were undoubtedly sparked by an Internet video. So that’s one thing that USA Today got wrong.

But the idea that the attack at Benghazi was not a protest against the video is also dubious. Dorell writes: “The CIA station chief in Libya reported from the outset that the attack was Al-Qaeda-linked and there was no protest.” Dorell doesn’t mention that that report came in an email sent September 15, 2012 (Media Matters, 4/1/14)–the day after Rhodes sent his memo. The early CIA analysis, as Slate‘s Dave Weigel (4/30/14) noted, was that “the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo”–which were about the video.

Benghazi fire (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Reuters photo by Esam Omran Al-Fetori illustrating NYT follow-up report on Benghazi

Moreover, that later CIA assessment backing away from this theory is contradicted by first-hand news reporting based on interviews with the people actually involved in the attack. As the New York Times (9/13/12 ; FAIR Blog, 10/17/12) reported the day after the attack, and the day before Rhodes’ memo:

Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by a Islamist brigade formed during last year’s uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon. Their attack followed by just a few hours the storming of the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo by an unarmed mob protesting the same video.

The Times returned again a month later (10/16/12)  and again a year later (12/29/13), conducting further reporting and getting much the same picture (FAIR Blog, 12/29/13).  As the Times‘ David Kirkpatrick wrote in December 2013, there is “no evidence that Al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”

Dorell is likewise disinforming his readers when he writes, “President Obama did not call it a terrorist attack until days later.” This is based on the peculiar right-wing notion (FAIR Blog, 10/19/12) that there is a profound difference between labeling something a “terrorist attack” and an “act of terror,” as Obama did in his initial statement on Benghazi: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,
alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.