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Did political spin hide the truth of Benghazi?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
May 14, 2013 -- Updated 1035 GMT (1835 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: When does spin go overboard, and out of control?
  • She asks: How did a broad assessment involving terror turn into a bland, false theory?
  • Bureaucrats took mention of al Qaeda out of the points distributed to Congress, others, she says
  • Borger: President Obama neglects key point that the public was misled

Washington (CNN) -- Ever since Watergate became the shorthand for a government run amok, the political cliché of our time has been about the political lesson of that era: That the coverup can be worse than the crime.

Apply that cliché to Benghazi -- and questions about the motive for removing the terror link from talking points about the Libyan attack in the heat of an election. Maybe there's a corollary question that we ought to be asking: In politics, when did spin trump everything, even the truth?

We're in dangerous territory right now, although the president himself seems to be having none of it, calling the investigation a "political circus." Sure it is.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

But in the center ring is something that still begs an explanation, despite the president's dismissiveness: How -- and why-- did the account of what happened at Benghazi (i.e. the infamous talking points) go through a dozen iterations, beginning with a fairly detailed description of the potential involvement of al Qaeda that morphed over the course of a day into a simple, gauzy, bland (and false) theory?

Administration officials say, of course, that this is just part of the regular, interagency "process" of consultation that occurs before information is released. In other words, this is the way intelligence always gets scrubbed and vetted.

And in this case, don't forget, the information was being released to members of Congress on the intelligence committees, so they could speak in public with some clarity (!) on Benghazi. But that also means the information was going to Republicans -- in the heat of the fall election -- so antennae were up.

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What's more, the bureaucratic armor was on -- between people at the State Department and the CIA, each trying to make sure their agency wasn't thrown under the bus for the obvious failures in Benghazi.

All in all, just another day in Washington.

Let's try to deconstruct the accusations. First, the notion that politics was somehow at play is, of course, true. Was it 30% or 50% or 80% of the problem? Hard to say.

What we do know is this: In an e-mail, Victoria Nuland, the State Department's spokeswoman at the time, makes the point that a key paragraph in the talking points -- containing context and detail about five other attacks in Benghazi -- "could be abused by members of Congress to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings so why would we feed that either ... "

She's right: Republicans and Mitt Romney would no doubt have accused the administration of not paying enough attention to warning signs. But since it was also the truth -- or an important part of it -- why suppress it?

Then there's the rest of the story, which may even be more dispositive. Although the U.S. ambassador to Libya lost his life, the exact nature of the Benghazi operation is tricky. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the White House changed the wording from "consulate" to "diplomatic facility" to be more accurate. So what does that mean? Thanks to the digging of Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post, it looks very much like the Benghazi consulate "was not a consulate at all but basically a secret CIA operation."

And, as Kessler also points out, the internal Accountability Review Board, in its investigation, tiptoed around the delicate matter: The U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, it said, "was never a consulate and never formally notified to the Libyan government." In other words, this was a hit on a CIA outpost, resulting in the death of an ambassador who happened to be there at the time.

That helps to explain the pushback from the State Department, which was publicly taking the heat -- and didn't want the CIA-driven talking points to add to the idea that they had failed to protect their own. In addition, State had been pretty mum on the whole picture, and Nuland didn't want the talking points to reflect more than she had been allowed to share publicly, so she naturally objected -- on behalf of her "building's leadership."

The bottom line: That the more complex version of the truth -- previous recent attacks, previous threats linked to al Qaeda, the presence of "Islamic extremists" -- was somehow lost in translation and what emerged instead was something that turned out to be utterly false: a claim that the attack was "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo."

In the end, there are two parts to this Benghazi brouhaha. The president called the controversy a "sideshow," and he's right: Republicans are trying to fund-raise off of this and hurt Hillary Clinton. And maybe the president was goading them, knowing that if they go overboard, the public will turn on them.

But the president's dismissive attitude towards the whole mess willfully neglects the second part of the problem. He says, incredulously, "who executes some sort of coverup or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic."

Alas, it doesn't. Nothing in life happens in a vacuum, and life in Washington is no different. In the context of the closing months of a presidential campaign, three days can be an eternity. And spinning across the finish line is all that counts.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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