PolitiFact: Rice downplayed possibility of terror attack at Benghazi

In discussing the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, “Ms. Rice did say ‘a terrorist attack.’ It’s not that she put the whole thing on the video.” -- Cokie Roberts in comments Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”

Following the release of a new White House email, discussion on the Sunday morning shows turned back to the Sept. 11, 2012, deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

President Barack Obama and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice both came under scrutiny for downplaying a potential terrorist attack in the days following.

Though government officials eventually said the attack was an act of terrorism with ties to al-Qaida, White House officials initially said the violence was the result of a mob protesting an anti-Muslim film that had been posted on YouTube.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Chris Wallace criticized Rice.

“Under court order, the administration had to release an email from a presidential adviser that indicates the White House helped shape Susan Rice’s talking points when she appeared here and on other Sunday talk shows five days after the attack,” he said. “In those interviews Rice blamed reaction to a video and ruled out a pre-planned act of terror.”

Others defended Rice and the White House.

On ABC’s “This Week,” political strategist David Plouffe said the president referred to Benghazi as a terrorist attack in his Rose Garden address Sept. 12. We’ve noted before, though, that the White House wasn’t consistent in describing the event as a terrorist attack until two weeks later.

Similarly, ABC political commentator Cokie Roberts said Rice mentioned the prospect of terrorism in comments on the Sept. 16 Sunday shows.

“When you read the transcript of those Sunday shows, actually Ms. Rice did say a ‘terrorist attack,’ ” Roberts said. “It’s not that she put the whole thing on the video.”

PolitiFact has broken down Rice’s on-air comments before, but its affiliate, PunditFact, wanted to revisit the issue since it’s still a point of contention among pundits a year and a half after the attack.

PunditFact found that Roberts misrepresented Rice’s talking points during that first round of Sunday show appearances after the attack. ABC did not return our request for comment.

Here are the main points from each interview:

Rice referred to the video as the source of the conflict in all five interviews.

On Fox and ABC, she said the attacks were not pre-planned but rather were related to the video protest.

She mentioned “extremists” on CBS, CNN, NBC and ABC, but again she connected them to the protest of the video and implied the uprisings were not planned as an act of terrorism. On CNN, for example, she described the attack as a “horrific incident where some mob was hijacked ultimately by a handful of extremists.”

She mentioned al-Qaida only on CBS and cautioned that she wasn’t sure it was involved.

In no interview did she use the word “terror” or any variation.

Technically, Rice did mention extremism in most of her appearances, but she certainly wasn’t saying that the Benghazi attack was a pre-planned act of terror. In fact, she repeatedly emphasized that it wasn’t.

Rice’s appearances on Sunday Sept. 16 were consistent in that she repeatedly said that the federal government was investigating what happened and that “we’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms.” But when asked to offer her assessment of what happened, Rice stressed protests related to the anti-Muslim video and downplayed connections to terrorism.

Our ruling

Roberts said that when talking about Benghazi on the Sunday shows Sept. 16, 2012, Rice said, “terrorist attack” and didn’t put the entire blame on protests related to an anti-Islam YouTube video. Our review of the transcripts from Rice’s appearances showed the opposite. She consistently emphasized the importance of the video, and the only times she brought up the possibility of a terrorist connection was to downplay it.

We rate Roberts’ claim Mostly False.

-- This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources — including excerpts of then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's comments on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC — go to www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/may/04/cokie-roberts/cokie-roberts-susan-rice-didnt-put-whole-benghazi-/.