New evidence obtained by the House Select Committee on Benghazi suggests the Obama administration forged ahead with a narrative that blamed the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi on a protest over a YouTube clip, despite clear and consistent signs that the violence was planned and executed by a terrorist group.
In a 48-page summary of the committee's findings that was penned by a pair of Republican committee members and made public Tuesday, Reps. Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo argued the administration presented the public with an explanation that had little basis in fact because President Obama was preoccupied with declaring terrorism dead ahead of his reelection.
Although then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has attempted to attribute the misinformation in her early statements on Benghazi to the "fog of war," Pompeo said Clinton was among the many administration officials with almost immediate access to intelligence that indicated the attack was carried out by Islamic terrorists.
"It's largely undisputed that she had that information, and that's the way that she articulated it privately that night," Pompeo told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
"We now also have access to a large body of information with respect to what the intelligence community was communicating that night as well," he added.
Comparisons to Cairo
Documents and witness testimony reviewed by the committee turned up no mentions of a protest in Benghazi at any time prior to the attack that claimed four American lives. While the administration tried for days to tie the Libyan violence to a demonstration against the infamous YouTube clip in Cairo earlier on Sept. 11, State Department officials admitted privately that the Egyptian protest culminated in a few graffiti displays and nothing more.
Agency officials quickly recognized the difference between the largely nonviolent protests earlier that day in Cairo, where no weapons were displayed, and the heavily-armed raid that swept through Benghazi hours later. But they continued to characterize the attack as an offshoot of the demonstration in neighboring Egypt when discussing Benghazi publicly.
"We can confirm that our office in Benghazi, Libya has been attacked by a group of militants [and] [i]n Cairo, we can confirm that Egyptian police have now removed the demonstrators," one State Department official emailed another the night of the Benghazi attack, according to emails obtained by the Benghazi committee.
"Secretary Clinton began to connect Cairo and Benghazi in the public's mind almost immediately even as she and others admitted privately the two were unrelated," Pompeo and Jordan noted in their report.
Republicans on the select committee have long lamented the White House's refusal to cooperate with their investigative efforts. Obama's circle of advisers withheld stacks of records that might have shaped the panel's findings, especially in the context of the shifting narrative put forth by the administration.
However, discussions among lower-ranking officials shed new light on the internal reaction to Obama's external relations.
For example, an email conversation between two diplomatic security officers dated Sept. 18, 2012 illustrates the shock some State Department observers felt at the White House's dedication to talking points that dismissed the possibility of terrorism.
Commenting on a news article titled, "White House sees no sign Libya attack premeditated," one diplomatic security officer emailed another, "Can you believe this?"
"Was there any rioting in Benghazi reported prior to the attack?" the second diplomatic security officer replied.
"Zip. Nada. Nothing," said the first.
After United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16 and continued to dismiss suggestions that the Benghazi bloodshed was a terror attack, State Department officials said in discussions amongst themselves that Rice was "off the reservation."
"The horse has left the barn on this, don't you think?" one Libya expert at State emailed another agency official. "Rice was on FIVE Sunday Morning shows yesterday saying this. Tough to walk back."
The agency official replied by pointing out that there was sufficient ambiguity in Rice's statements to give the administration room to change its tone.
"Luckily there's enough in her language to fudge exactly what she said/meant," the agency official wrote in an email obtained by the committee.
Evolution of a talking point
The administration had early evidence from witnesses on the ground in Benghazi that pointed to a coordinated terror attack.
"The story was very clear, that this was a terrorist attack, literally within hours of the initial shots having been fired," Pompeo said.
But the administration clung to isolated and factually thin reports that the inflammatory YouTube clip might have played a role, even in the face of overwhelming proof that extremists had mapped out a sophisticated attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
On Sept. 17, the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau altered a set of talking points to remove desciptions of the attack as "premeditated" and "coordinated," instead describing the violence as "spontaneous."
While most of the messaging coming out of the administration in the days after the attack framed the raid as a protest that had spun out of control, Obama seemingly slipped up on Sept. 12, 2012 during a taping of 60 Minutes.
"We're still investigating exactly what happened. I don't want to jump the gun on this. But you're right that this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt, and my suspicion is, is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start," Obama said in the interview, just one day after the attack.
But that portion of the interview was inexplicably deleted before the episode of 60 Minutes aired on Sept. 23. In fact, it was not made public until days before the presidential election.
Rice, who took the most fire for promulgating the deceptive Benghazi narrative, claimed their focus on the YouTube clip was the result of their reliance on an early set of CIA talking points.
A review of those talking points by the select committee revealed no reference to the video clip, however. Portions of the talking points that mentioned the involvement of terrorist groups were removed from the final draft of the CIA guidance.
After 25 months of sparring over the committee's every move, panel Democrats released their own report Monday ahead of Chairman Trey Gowdy's findings in an attempt to lessen their impact.
The minority report cast doubt on the argument that administration officials knew the attack was premeditated from the start. Clinton herself testified before the select committee in Oct. 2015 that enough confusion surrounded the loss of American lives to explain the disconnect between the administration's early statements and those that came weeks later, after the election had handed Obama a second term.
But Pompeo and Jordan argued in their summary of the majority's official findings that Obama and Clinton twisted available facts to serve their political ambitions.
"The information the President, Secretary Clinton, and other senior leaders had included detailed information about the sophisticated nature of the attack, the weapons used, the complexity of the attack, and the hours-long duration of the siege that spanned two locations," the pair of Republican members wrote.
"With the presidential election just 56 days away, rather than tell the American people the truth and increase the risk of losing an election, the administration told one story privately and a different story publicly," Pompeo and Jordan added. "They publicly blamed the deaths on a video-inspired protest they knew had never occurred."