What were President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thinking? Why did they keep pitching the line that the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans started as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video?
One possible explanation is confusion. There was such an attack on our embassy in Cairo earlier that day that fit that description.
When Hillary Clinton on Sept. 14 talked of a "mob" and "violent attacks" over the caskets of the Americans slain in Benghazi, she could have been referring to the attacks in Cairo. In that case she would not exactly be lying, as many have charged.
But she would have been misleading people, quite possibly intentionally. We know she assured one victim's father, Charles Wood, that "we're going to prosecute that person that made the video."
Not entirely successfully, by the way. "I knew she was lying," Woods said after the House committee hearing on Benghazi last week.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that Clinton was knowingly attempting to mislead. She certainly knows the difference between Cairo and Benghazi.
And it's undisputed that Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 man in our Libya embassy, reported that it was an "attack" on Sept. 11. That was the word he heard in his last conversation with Chris Stevens.
It's undisputed as well, after testimony at the House committee hearing last week, that Beth Jones, acting head of State's Near Eastern division, emailed on Sept. 12 that "the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Shariah, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists."
That email went to Clinton counselor Cheryl Mills and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, among others. You may remember Mills as one of the lawyers defending Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial.
On Sept. 15, the day after Clinton's assurances to Woods, State Department and White House officials prepared talking points for members of Congress and for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was scheduled to go on five Sunday talk shows the next day.
Who chose Rice as the administration's spokeswoman? As Obama said after the election, when she was reportedly under consideration to be the next secretary of state, Rice had "nothing to do" with Benghazi.
Selecting which officials go on the Sunday talk show is a White House function. Either the president or someone who had good reason to believe he was reflecting his wishes selected someone who was out of the loop on the issue.
The expectation must have been that she would say exactly what she was told -- and would not betray any inconvenient facts known to those in the loop, like Clinton.
The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes got hold of the series of Sept. 15 emails in which White House and State Department officials prepared the talking points.
Deleted were references to warnings State received before Sept. 11 of Ansar al-Sharia- and al Qaeda-linked attacks in Benghazi. Nuland describes these as "issues ... of my building leadership."
The final talking points said "the currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post and subsequently its annex." Rice went on TV and parroted the line.
That was refuted by Gregory Hicks. The video was a "non-event" in Libya, he told the House committee. And he testified that he was chastised by none other than Cheryl Mills for briefing Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz without a lawyer present.
The FBI did not find time to interview Hicks. But State did find time to yank him out of his job and give him a desk job he regards as a demotion.
Obama continued to attribute the Benghazi attack to a protest against a video on Sept. 18 ("Letterman"), Sept. 20 (Univision) and Sept. 25 ("The View" and the United Nations).
There were obvious cynical political motives for attempting to mislead voters during a closely contested presidential campaign.
Obama did not want his theme of "Osama is dead, al Qaeda is on the run" to be undercut by an Islamist terrorist attack on our ambassador.
Clinton did not want her department's denial of pleas for additional security in Libya to become known.
But maybe they were also trying to deceive themselves. Which may be even more disturbing.
Michael Barone,The Washington Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.