Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
GOP scandal-chasers have been obsessed with the Obama administration's talking points about the attack on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, and the White House on Wednesday tried to put the pseudo-scandal to rest by releasing a batch of interagency emails related to the talking points.
These emails thoroughly undercut the conservative charge that the White House massaged the talking points to whitewash the attack and protect President Obama's reelection prospects. One email from a CIA official noted that the White House "cleared quickly" the talking points drafted by the CIA but the State Department had concerns. Poof—there goes the conspiracy theory that Obama's aides excised references to terrorism and an Al Qaeda-linked group for campaign-related reasons. But questions about the Benghazi episode remain, particularly this one: Has the CIA avoided scrutiny for its central role in this affair?
Last week, the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler noted that the revised talking points indicated that Obama administration officials in various agencies were inhibited by a key fact as they were grappling with what could be said publicly about the attacks in Benghazi: The assault had targeted a CIA annex in addition to a temporary State Department mission. That made the job tough for the drafters of the talking points. As Kessler wrote,
from the State Department perspective, this was an attack on a CIA operation, perhaps by the very people the CIA was battling, and the ambassador [Chris Stevens] tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, for obvious reasons, the administration could not publicly admit that Benghazi was mostly a secret CIA effort.
Kessler emphasized an obvious point: The initial talking points drafted by the CIA implied that "State screwed up, even though internally, it was known that this was a CIA operation." Naturally, at the time, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, objected to this. So here was a bureaucratic tussle—not White House skullduggery. Yet the CIA's attempt to duck blame may be the more important story than what UN Ambassador Susan Rice was handed in preparation for her Sunday talk show appearance.
Dick Cheney has never been short on chutzpah. Jumping aboard the GOP scandal-mongering machine, the former vice president appeared on Fox News (where else?) and declared to Sean Hannity (who else?) that President Barack Obama and his aides "lied" about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, last September that left four Americans dead. "I think it's one of the worst incidents frankly that I can recall in my career," Cheney huffed—as if 9/11 had never happened. The former veep went the full Monty and echoed (discredited) right-wing charges that the Obama administration refused to deploy military forces to help Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans when they were assaulted in Benghazi.
More MoJo content about the September 2012 attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the resulting scandal
Rather than painting pictures of dogs, the out-of-power Cheney remains committed to blasting his administration's successor, as if memory (his and the nation's) does not exist. After leading the country to war on a foundation of falsehoods, Cheney shows a boatload of nerve in accusing Obama and his crew of lying about Benghazi because the talking points assembled after the attack by an interagency group (that included the White House) were not fully accurate.
Cheney's second-in-command stint holds far clearer examples of consequential White House prevarication. Here are three highlights:
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
That's what Cheney said at a speech on August 26, 2002, at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, as the Bush-Cheney administration prepared to roll-out its campaign to win popular support for an invasion of Iraq.
House Speaker John Boehner, according to Politico, is obsessed with Benghazi. And last week, after ABC News revealed the revised talking points crafted by the Obama administration following the September 11 attack that left four Americans dead, Boehner demanded that the administration release emails related to these talking points. "The truth shouldn't be hidden from the American people behind a White House firewall," Boehner declared. "Four Americans lost their lives in this terrorist attack. Congress will continue to investigate this issue, using all of the resources at our disposal." But thanks, in part, to the Republicans, the truth isn't being hidden. Boehner and his fellow Republicans had access to those emails—and used them for a public report they issued weeks ago that scooped the ABC News story.
In March, Boehner, according to a senior administration official, was invited to a White House-arranged briefing where the emails and other Benghazi-related material could be privately reviewed. Boehner did not attend; he sent staff, who attended with other House Republicans. Asked why Boehner did not participate in this session and why he did not at that time demand the release of the emails, Brendan Buck, his press secretary, says, "This is embarrassing pushback. Do you recall the report we put out in April? The committees were compiling information as part of their investigation and when the report was done, the committees requested the release of the emails." In an April 23 letter, five GOP House committee chairs did ask the White House to turn over to their committees the documents it had allowed the GOPers to review.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton take part in the Transfer of Remains Ceremony marking the return to the United States of the remains of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya.
As ABC News reported on Friday morning, the most discussed talking points in US diplomatic history were revised multiple times before being passed to UN Ambassador Susan Rice prior to her appearances last September on Sunday talk shows. The revisions—which deleted several lines noting that the CIA months before the attack had produced intelligence reports on the threat of Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Benghazi—appear to have been driven by State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, who, it should be noted, is a career Foggy Bottomer who has served Republican and Democratic administrations, not a political appointee. Her motive seems obvious: fend off a CIA CYA move that could make the State Department look lousy. (The other major deletion concerned three sentences about a possible link between the attack and Ansar al-Sharia, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group; last November, David Petraeus, the former CIA chief, testified that this information was removed from the talking points in order to avoid tipping off the group.)
But here's the problem for the White House: It was part of the interagency process in which State sought to downplay information that might have raised questions about its preattack performance. That's a minor sin (of omission). Yet there's more: On November 28, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "Those talking points originated from the intelligence community. They reflect the IC's best assessments of what they thought had happened. The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word 'consulate' to 'diplomatic facility because 'consulate' was inaccurate."
Assuming the talking points revisions released byABC News are accurate—and the White House has not challenged them—Carney's statement was not correct. The State Department did far more than change one word, and it did so in a process involving White House aides. So, White House critics can argue, Carney put out bad information and did not acknowledge that State had massaged the talking points to protect itself from inconvenient questions.
This is not much of cover-up. There is no evidence the White House is hiding the truth about what occurred in Benghazi. My colleague Kevin Drum dismisses this recent Benghazi news ("on a scale of 1 to 10, this is about a 1.5"). But the White House has indeed been caught not telling the full story. Despite Carney's statement, there was politically minded handling of the talking points. Yet in today's hyperpartisan environment, such a matter cannot be evaluated with a sense of proportion. Obama antagonists decry it as a deed most foul, and White House defenders denounce the the critics. The talking points dispute is not a scandal; it's a mess—a small mess—and not as significant as the actions (and non-actions) that led to Benghazi. Yet no mess is too tiny for scandalmongers in need of material.
What do the most hawkish neocons desire in Syria? A full US military presence in the air and on the ground.
In recent days, hawks on the right (and the left) have pumped up the volume in calling for US military action in Syria. Last week, President Barack Obama sent a letter to key members of Congress saying that US intelligence has obtained evidence of "small-scale" use of chemical weapons, presumably by forces associated with the Syrian government. But the White House has noted that the "chain of custody" for these weapons hadn't been confirmed and that further corroboration was needed. The use of any chemical weapons in Syria by government forces would violate the "red line" Obama declared last year.
But the president in the past few days, most notably at his press conference on Tuesday, has stated that he intends to proceed deliberatively and that more information is necessary before reaching a firm conclusion about the use of chemical weapons. He also said at the press conference that if confirmation is obtained, it would be a "game changer" for the "international community"—that is, not a cause for immediate unilateral US military action—and that it would cause him to "rethink the range of options." In recent days, White House aides have told me that possible responses (for which Obama would seek support at the United Nations and the Arab League) could include boosting or changing the nature of the now-nonlethal aid being provided to anti-government rebels or a "limited" military strike on a target related to chemical weapons or of symbolic or strategic importance to Damascus. "There are no easy answers," more than one White House aide has said with a sigh, noting that many rebels are now tied to Al Qaeda or other extremists and the Syrian government maintains a state-of-the-art air defense system.
The usual hawks, though, are pushing for immediate and elaborate military intervention—without always being specific. On ABC's This Week, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chair of the House intelligence committee, said the red line "cannot be a dotted line" and "some action needs to be taken." On CBS's Face the Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) maintained "there's a growing consensus in the US Senate that the United States should get involved." And several Democrats have echoed the call for doing something in response to the latest reports on chemical weapons. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said "action must be taken." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "I myself think that we have tolerated for too long all of the assaults on the Syrian people made by its own government. I think we have to take it to the next step." But, she added, "That does not mean troops on the ground."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), while fervently urging military intervention, agreed no US troops should intrude upon Syrian territory. He called for an international force that would locate and secure chemical weapons in Syria. "There are a number of caches of these chemical weapons," he said. "They cannot fail into the hands of the jihadists." He repeated his proposal for establishing a no-fly zone and providing arms to the rebels, who already have been receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are each eager to back the Sunni opposition fighting the Alawites of Bashar al-Assad's regime. McCain, though, did caution against placing US "boots on the ground in Syria," contending "that would turn the people against us." Even neocon favorite John Bolton, in a Wall Street Journal article slamming Obama for, yes, foreign policy fecklessness, pointed out that military action aimed at Syrian chemical weapons is an iffy propsect: "[T]he humanitarian costs of chemical-weapons use inside Syria are potentially high, but so are the risks to American and allied forces trying to destroy or seize chemical weapons, given the dangers and complexities involved." (He also noted "the unpleasant fact that the opposition is thick with terrorists—including al Qaeda—and radical Islamicists.")
But real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil. After Obama's press conference, a publicist for the American Center for Democracy shot out a press release touting the group's director, Rachel Ehrenfeld, and her proposals for action in Syria. She has three simple steps for the United States: bypass the United Nations and impose a no-fly zone in Syria; stop giving arms to rebels associated with Al Qaeda; and deploy US troops within Syria to secure chemical-weapons facilities. Given that Syria probably has scores, if not hundreds, of chemical-weapons sites, such a force would entail tens of thousands of US troops, perhaps hundreds of thousands. And these soldiers would likely have to fight their way to these sites. (No cake-walking here.)
Her proposal would entail invading Syria with a massive force of US troops. But Ehrenfeld's position is not that surprising, considering the board members and advisers for her American Center for Democracy. They include Richard Perle, one of the most hawkish neocons, who led the cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq, and former CIA chief R. James Woolsey, who after 9/11 promoted the neoconnish conspiracy theory that Saddam Hussein was the secret puppet master controlling Al Qaeda. On the ACD's list of advisers are retired Lt. General Thomas McInerney and retired Maj. General Paul Vallely, who were each over-the-top supporters of the Iraq War on Fox News.
One sign that Syria is indeed a hard case is that the neocons and the usual hawks are not entirely united. They are torn over whether to arm the anti-Assad forces, substantial portions of which are aligned with jihadists and extremists hostile to the United States, Israel, and the West. Some are squeamish about sending in US troops. Yet Bill Kristol, the son-of-the-godfather of the neocons, a few days ago denounced Obama's reluctance to take military action in Syria and proclaimed, "No one wants to start wars, but you've got to do what you've got to do." Ehrenfeld and the American Center for Democracy are demonstrating that the most hawkish neocons are ready to heed Kristol and go all-out in Syria. They want American boots on the ground, and they're not likely to stop squawking until there is an invasion.