PolitiFact: White House claims mischaracterize earlier Benghazi comments

Journalists peppered President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, with a series of tough questions about the Sept. 11 attacks on two U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, during a White House press briefing Friday. The incident, in which four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens — were killed was the topic of a congressional hearing two days before the briefing.

Members of Congress have criticized how the administration handled the incident, both in the immediate aftermath and in the months since. One of the issues receiving the most attention is whether, or to what extent, Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice misled the American public about the incident when she offered talking points on five Sunday morning talk shows on Sept. 16.

The criticism has focused on whether Rice was playing down the possibility that the attack was a pre-planned event carried out by terrorists, as opposed to flowing organically from a series of public protests at U.S. facilities throughout the Arab world following the news reports about a movie made in the U.S. that mocked Islam.

At the briefing, Carney responded to questions about Rice’s talking points by saying, “If you look at the issue here, the efforts to politicize it were always about were we trying to play down the fact that there was an act of terror and an attack on the embassy. … Susan Rice, when she went out on the Sunday shows using the very talking points that we’re discussing now, talked about the possibility that we knew that, or believed based on the intelligence assessment, that extremists were involved, and there were suspicions about what affiliations those extremists might have, but there were not … hard, concrete evidence. And so Ambassador Rice, in those shows, talked about the possibility that al-Qaida might be involved, or other al-Qaida affiliates might be involved, or non-al-Qaida Libyan extremists (might be involved), which I think demonstrates that there was no effort to play that down. It was simply a reflection of we did not, and the intelligence community did not, and others within the administration did not, jump to conclusions about who was responsible before we had an investigation to find out the facts.”

So was Carney correct that she mentioned al-Qaida and did not try to “play that down”?

We asked the White House for evidence but didn’t hear back by publication time. So we went to the transcripts of Rice’s appearances on five shows — CBS’ “Face the Nation,” CNN’s “State of the Union,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Fox News Sunday” and ABC’s “This Week.”

Here are a few key points drawn from those transcripts.

Rice only barely mentioned “the possibility that al-Qaida might be involved or that “al-Qaida affiliates might be involved. In only one of the five interviews — on “Face the Nation” — did Rice even speak the words “al-Qaida,” and even then she urged caution in jumping to conclusions. “Whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine,” she told host Bob Schieffer.

Rice did talk about whether “non-al-Qaida Libyan extremists” might be involved — repeatedly. But it’s worth noting that Rice portrayed these extremists as opportunists who seized the moment during a public uprising, which is something quite different from the pre-planned terrorist attack that the administration’s critics are charging the White House initially played down. Indeed, Rice explicitly, and repeatedly, shot down speculation that the attack was planned in advance, for instance telling Schieffer, “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”

Rice also played down the scenarios that Carney listed. In the one interview of the five in which she mentioned al-Qaida, she urged caution about assuming it was involved. And while she did allow that “extremists” appeared to have been involved in the attack, she made a point of saying in every interview that these extremists got involved only by hijacking an ongoing event that protested the anti-Islam film, a narrative that gives almost a secondary role to the extremists. Meanwhile, in three of the five interviews, Rice specifically rejected the idea that Benghazi amounted to a preplanned terrorist attack.

Our ruling

Carney said that Rice “talked about the possibility that al-Qaida might be involved, or other al-Qaida affiliates might be involved, or non-al-Qaida Libyan extremists (might be involved), which I think demonstrates that there was no effort to play that down.”

It’s true that Rice offered those three scenarios, but Carney is wrong to say she didn’t play them down. Rice barely mentioned the potential role of al-Qaida or one of its affiliates, and she urged caution about jumping to conclusions on the one occasion in which she did.

And while she did point to a role for “extremists,” Rice made clear that the extremists didn’t pre-plan the attack, but instead hijacked a demonstration that was already under way.

Both decisions played down, to one degree or another, each of the three scenarios she mentioned. We rate Carney’s claim Mostly False.

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This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, including sections from the transcripts, go to www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/may/13/jay-carney/jay-carney-says-susan-rice-didnt-play-down-terrori/.