In an interview with Chris Wallace yesterday, David Axelrod dodged some pointed questions about President Obama’s intelligence briefings after the Benghazi attack:
Here’s a partial transcript, via Powerline:
Q. How soon after the attack did the President meet with the National Security Council, with people from state, with people from the…, the Director of National Intelligence, with all of the various people to try to sort out what happened in Benghazi?
A. Look. We are sorting out what happened there. Understand that the President the day after the attack called it an act of terror and charged everyone with responsibility for getting to the bottom of what happened.
Q. Yes, the president made a statement and then he went to a fundraiser in Nevada. Question: Before he went to the fundraiser in Nevada, did he meet with his National Security Council to try to sort out the shifting stories. Because State says they never said it was a spontaneous demonstration; Intel, you are quite right, did. Did he meet with the National Security Council before he went campaigning in Nevada?
A. Chris, I assure you that the president was in contact with all those who had information and responsibility in the national security chain about this incident.
Intelligence did say, in unclassified CIA talking points to Congress, that the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous reaction to the Cairo protests over the anti-Islam video. The problem is, that narrative was contradicted by the initial intelligence report, according to Reuters’s Mark Hosenball:
The stream of intelligence flowing into Washington within hours of the Benghazi attacks contained data from communications intercepts and U.S. informants, which were then fashioned into polished initial assessments for policymakers. …
The report did not allege the attacks were a reaction to the anti-Muslim film, but acknowledged it was possible that the attackers sought to use an outbreak of violence in Cairo over the film, which insulted the Prophet Mohammad, as a pretext for attacks. …
Yet on September 15, administration officials, relying upon what they said was other information from intelligence agencies, circulated to members of Congress a set of talking points prepared by the CIA that purported to summarize what U.S. intelligence knew.
The 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 in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.”
There is an important distinction to make between the CIA talking points — the information the administration chose to emphasize — and the actual intelligence, which reportedly included plenty of evidence in the first hours that the attack was carried out by a militant group with al-Qaeda ties. Even if the intelligence was as muddled as the White House claims, why didn’t President Obama stay in Washington to try to get a handle on the situation on September 12, instead of flying off for a fundraiser in Nevada? Axelrod won’t answer the question directly, which tells you this issue is going to be a political problem for them.