**UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom of the post (I know it’s long…) for a bit of TRR sleuthing…
The revelation this week that emails provided to key congressional committees by the White House in response to Benghazi-hysteria among Republicans, may have been altered before being leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard and to ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl touched off speculation in at least some media quarters.
At issue, who altered or misrepresented the content of emails from Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, Ben Rhodes, and from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, to make the White House and State Department appear to have misled the American people, in a potential Benghazi cover up?
Karl touched off Beltway scandal-fever last Friday when he reported that:
…When it became clear last fall that the CIA’s now discredited Benghazi talking points were flawed, the White House said repeatedly the documents were put together almost entirely by the intelligence community, but White House documents reviewed by Congress suggest a different story.
ABC News has obtained 12 different versions of the talking points that show they were extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack. [Emphasis added]
Karl went on to report:
White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department. The edits included requests from the State Department that references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia be deleted as well references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack.
That would appear to directly contradict what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said about the talking points in November.
Here’s what Carl alleged about State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland:
Summaries of White House and State Department emails — some of which were first published by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard — show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland raised specific objections to this paragraph drafted by the CIA in its earlier versions of the talking points:
“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”
In an email to officials at the White House and the intelligence agencies, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland took issue with including that information because it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned …”
The paragraph was entirely deleted.
And then came the all-important link to the White House itself, with a State Department chaser:
In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. — three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows – Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department’s concerns needed to be addressed.
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”
After that meeting, which took place Saturday morning at the White House, the CIA drafted the final version of the talking points – deleting all references to al Qaeda and to the security warnings in Benghazi prior to the attack. [Emphasis added]
It was one hell of a bombshell. Except that it wasn’t true. Karl had not “obtained” any talking points emails at all. And the White House had not been shown to have weighed in on State Department revisions to the talking points that would be provided to Susan Rice, nor did a State Department spokeswoman evince a desire to cover up the true CIA assessment of the threat to the Benghazi compounds, who committed the Benghazi attacks, or why they happened.
The story began to unravel pretty quickly, starting with this “update” posted on the ABC News website under Karl’s story:
UPDATE: A source familiar with the White House emails on the Benghazi talking point revisions say that State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland was raising two concerns about the CIA’s first version of talking points, which were going to be sent to Congress: 1) The talking points went further than what she was allowed to say about the attack during her state department briefings; and, 2) she believed the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department’s expense by suggesting CIA warnings about the security situation were ignored.
In one email, Nuland asked, why are we suggest Congress “start making assertions to the media [about the al Qaeda connection] that we ourselves are not making because we don’t want to prejudice the investigation?”
One other point: The significant edits – deleting references to al Qaeda and the CIA’s warnings – came after a White House meeting on the Saturday before Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday shows. Nuland, a 30-year foreign service veteran who has served under Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State, was not at that meeting and played no direct role in preparing Rice for her interviews.
Oh, so maybe the “emails” didn’t show the nefarious intent implied by the original story …
And then, it got worse.
CNN (of all outlets, given their recent history …) debunked Karl’s story altogether days later, after Jake Tapper, a former ABC News reporter and the current main-man at the Turner outlet, obtaining copies of the actual emails — not the “detailed summaries” of emails that it turns out Karl had used in his reporting.
The two-car pile-up soon included CBS News:
On Friday, Republicans leaked what they said was a quote from Rhodes: “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.”
But it turns out that in the actual email, Rhodes did not mention the State Department.
It read: “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.”
The Republican version quotes Nuland discussing, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency (CIA) about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
The actual email from Nuland says: “The penultimate point could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.”
In other words, this particular conspiracy theory is short a conspiracy.
It’s all a little bit ironic, given that CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson had reported on the bogus “emails” too… But that’s showbiz in Newsland.
Finally, in a “please proceed, governor“ moment, the White House released the more than 100 Benghazi emails on Wednesday, making the disparity between the ABC and Weekly Standard reports and the actual content crystal clear.
So far, few repercussions for ABC
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, few in the mainstream media — who have gone ham over the supposed trio of “White House scandals” involving the Benghazi talking points, the IRS screening of 501(c)4 applicants between 2010 and 2012, and the investigation into a leak regarding a CIA operation to disrupt al-Qaida, which resulted in the Justice Department reviewing the phone records of something like 100 Associated Press journalists — have shown much interest in what happened here, despite what sure looks like a case of deliberate misinformation fed to news outlets by government officials, for the purposes of injecting a scandal narrative into the mainstream news cycle.
In fact, it has only been liberals in the media: including Salon.com, Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (who went directly at that point on her show on Friday, as reported by Tommy Christopher at the otherwise conservative Mediaite) who have been beating the drum on this story… This from Tommy’s most recent post on the matter:
It is in this context that Rachel Maddow ripped ABC News, describing hoe the Benghazi “scandal” had failed to gain any traction until “This time last week, ABC news blew this story wide open,” adding “When I say they blew this story, I mean seriously, they totally blew it.”
she played a clip of Diane Sawyer hyping Jon Karl’s report. “ABC’s Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl broke the story that created a storm today,” Sawyer said.
“He did create a storm,” Maddow said. “The ABC report caused all three network newscasts to report on the scandal of Benghazi,” and added that “then Sunday morning, oh, boy, all four Sunday morning talk shows. ABC and NBC and CBS and Fox News Sunday, all leading with Benghazi.”
“Wow, thanks, Jonathan Karl. Thanks, ABC. Now this is the biggest story in the country because of the damning e-mails that ABC News said it had obtained,” Maddow said, sarcastically, and if you don’t trust Maddow’s assessment of the significance of the invented quotes, then check out Major Garrett‘s.
Clearly, what’s at issue is Karl’s claim to have “obtained” the emails relating to the Benghazi talking points, when what he actually obtained were “detailed notes” summarizing the emails , from a “Republican source.” And the fact that the source appears to have added things to the email content that weren’t originally there.
Shouldn’t we kind of want to know who that source (or sources) was (or were), in case they have more false information to peddle to members of the press?
Karl’s source could be anybody on the Hill, but in a sense, the scope of possibilities for the identity of his source is relatively narrow, since only a finite number of Republican members of congress and their senior staff members would have seen the original emails, and taken detailed notes on them, before the White House released the 100 or so emails this week.
The Benghazi attack took place on September 11, 2012. Four Americans were killed in the twin, armed assaults on a diplomatic compound and a CIA facility in the Libyan town, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
September 16 - U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appears on several Sunday talk shows, explaining what the administration knew up to that point about the attacks, which she indicates were believed by U.S. intelligence to have been related to protests around the Muslim world against an offensive video produced by a Coptic-American, called “Innocence of the Muslims.” That assessment, which came from the CIA, turned out to be inaccurate. And while the president soon termed the Benghazi attack an “act of terror,” Republicans pounced on him for not using their preferred term, “terrorist attack” – and for the fact that Rice didn’t name the al-Qaida affiliated group believed to be responsible for the attacks — Ansar-al-Sharia — on those Sunday shows.
September 2012 -January 2013 – It wasn’t long before conservatives were politicizing it, with the RNC even producing a Benghazi “3 a.m. phone call” TV ad that the Romney campaign turned down in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign. More than a few Republicans, including veterans of his campaign, believe Romney lost the election because he failed to capitalize on Benghazi as a way to get out the Republican base vote.
February 21-22, 2013 — The White House agrees to provide to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, its chain of email traffic related to the talking points on the Benghazi attacks that were provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice ahead of her appearance on several Sunday talk shows last fall. Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham had declared themselves “hell bent” on viewing the emails detailing what Rice was told before her talk show appearances. The GOP’s hope: that the emails would yield a “smoking gun” proving the White House covered up its true knowledge about who was behind the Benghazi attack, to abet President Obama’s re-election. (Sen. Rand Paul filibustered Brennan’s nomination anyway, on a different issue: drones, on March 6th.)
February 25, 2013 — According to a senior administration source, the General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Robert Litt, conducted a briefing for members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein), their staff directors, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Senate “Ranking Member,” presumably Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and their “key staff.” Per the administration source, “the briefing walked members through the email traffic showing the development of the [Benghazi] talking points and also identified the changes that were made to each iteration of the talking points and the agency that suggested the change. Members and staff were told that they had as much time as they needed to sit with the emails and were allowed to take notes.”
Below is the full list of the committee members from both parties:
|2013-2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, members:|
|John D. Rockefeller IV,
|James E. Risch,
|Barbara A. Mikulski,
According to Salon.com’s Alex Seitz-Wald, Chambliss and Burr definitely attended the briefing. It’s not clear which other members of the committee were present.
February 27 - The same briefing is offered to members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. According to the administration source, the briefing never happens, because “House committee members cancelled on us two times and then eventually went forward on March 19th.”
March 7 – After the Rand Paul 13-hour filibuster ends, John Brennan is confirmed by the Senate as CIA director. No members of the Senate Intelligence Committee raise the Benghazi emails as an impediment to Brennan’s confirmation. In fact, Paul’s filibuster was about the absurd suggestion that drones might be used on American soil to kill the president’s enemies, not about Benghazi.
March 19 – The Litt briefing with HPSCI members finally takes place. And as Seitz-Wald reported, Speaker Boehner didn’t even bother to attend, or send senior staff. Again quoting the administration source: “The briefing walked members and staff through the chronology of email traffic and identified the changes that were made to each iteration of the talking points as well as the agency that suggested the change. Members and staff were told that they had as much time as they needed to sit with the documents and were allowed to take notes.”
May 6 – Stephen Hayes posts his story on the magazine’s website alleging White House involvement in editing the talking points. Hayes claimed that per the “emails” he obtained, “fresh evidence emerged that senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what had happened in the days following the assaults.”
May 7 – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing to consider the nomination of Deborah K. Jones to replace the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the Benghazi attacks on September 11, 2012. That same day, Senator Lindsey Graham predicts that a much-anticipated hearing the following day, in the House, would be a “turning point” for the Benghazi story.
May 8 – The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by relentless Obama-hunter Rep. Darrell Issa of California, holds its long-awaited (by conservatives) Benghazi hearings, featuring the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. in Libya at the time of the attacks, Gregory Hicks, the Republicans’ chief “whistle-blower,” who they claimed had been “intimidated” by the White House and/or the State Department to prevent his testimony from seeing the light of day. The hearings, which produced little new information, prompted wall-to-wall coverage from Fox News, and even congratulations to Fox from Senate Intelligence Committee member, and ubiquitous Republican TV presence Marco Rubio. Rubio high fives Fox for “Keeping on” the Benghazi issue, adding that he believes the White House tried to…
…cover up “any reference to terrorism” because of political motivations during an election year.
“What I think is sad is how many people that are around the administration — including the former secretary of state, Secretary Clinton — knew this to be the case and allowed this to move forward anyway,” he remarked. “You would have hoped that people would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong, the American people deserve the truth.’ That didn’t happen.”
The Senate Foreign Relations committee, on which Rubio sits, had held its own Benghazi hearings in late January, during which Republican attempts to skewer former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t go so well... And the Senate Armed Services Committee had held its own Benghazi hearings on February 7th, which also failed to yield blockbuster mainstream news.
May 10 – Jonathan Karl’s big story making the same allegations as Hayes’ — that the White House weighed in on State Department requests to edit Benghazi talking points — goes live. It is quickly picked up by other mainstream media outlets. CBS News reporter Sharyl Atkisson does a version of the story too, though she avoids attributing the supposed “emails” to a specific individual in the White House or State Department.
May 15 – The White House releases 100 pages of the actual emails in the Benghazi talking points saga. As CNN and later CBS reported, the actual contents of the Rhodes and Nuland emails contradict Hayes, Carl’s and Atkisson’s reporting. House Republicans have since declared themselves “not satisfied” — clearly hoping additional emails, which it’s not even clear exist, will contain that long awaited “smoking gun…”
Bad note takers, or bad actors…?
So we know that the administration did not distribute the actual emails to members of the House and Senate leadership and the relevant committees, but that the members and/or their staffs were allowed to take copious notes, for as long as they wished, while being briefed on and viewing the emails in February and March.
And we know that someone leaked their notes about the emails to the Weekly Standard, and to ABC, but as has now emerged, with altered, or at minimum incorrect, information included.
How likely is it that in a situation where they were not being rushed, and had plenty of time to take very detailed notes, that someone who participated in one of those briefings, inadvertently added erroneous information to their recollection of what was in the Ben Rhodes email? How likely does it seem that someone just plain goofed, and accidentally mis-recorded information that implicated the White House and State Department in allegedly doctoring the talking points for Rice (and for members of Congress, we often forget, because the talking points were for them too) in a way that benefited the White House politically?
Is it plausible that House and Senate members or staffers who have had their notes on those talking points emails in their possession for months, suddenly came across damning new information about the White House and State Department such that they felt compelled to leak it to Hayes and Karl last week? Well of course that’s highly unlikely. So doesn’t that indicate that the doctoring may have been deliberate?
Of course, I suppose it’s possible that Karl simply misinterpreted what he was being told by his Republican source … although that would mean he misinterpreted the information in precisely the same way Stephen Hayes and the CBS reporter did …
And it can’t be said enough that THE “smoking gun” implicating the White House in a supposed Benghazi coverup, came from these two emails that Karl claimed he had reviewed, when in fact, what he actually saw or was read, were “detailed notes” — containing made up information — from a “Republican source.”
A motive to mislead?
So why, theoretically, would a Republican member or someone on their staff knowingly put wrong information into the hands of a reporter at ABC News?
If we go on the assumption that it was deliberate, one explanation could be that the right has finally learned a lesson, in the wake of Romney’s loss in 2012 and how blindsided they all were by it, about the limits to the efficacy of conservative media outside the right wing bubble.
Again, the faulty email notes were first given to Stephen Hayes at the conservative Weekly Standard. And Fox News, and Breitbart, and the Daily Caller and RedState and every other right wing outlet have been banging on about Benghazi since well before the election.
It certainly has worked among the right wing Republican base, where some in the online fringe have taken to calling President Obama “The Butcher of Benghazi” — and floating wild conspiracy theories that the president deliberately ordered the military to stand down and not protect the ambassador; or that the Joint Special Operations Command’s decision not to send two additional special forces troops to the compound, or to fly F-16s over the compound because they couldn’t make it in time is itself either a lie, or part of the “cover-up” … that the entire Benghazi presence was part of a secret CIA program to arm Syrian rebels (Rand Paul’s favorite) … or even that Obama watched the entire attack on a non-existent video feed. (Get more of the right’s favorite Benghazi conspiracy theories here.)
None of it got the story the national legs the GOP base so desperately craved.
Even multiple congressional hearings, which produced epic sound bites from GOP stars like Rand Paul and firebrands like Issa “taking it to the administration” have failed to give the “Benghazigate” meme sufficient lift-off to move it from the fever swamps of the right, and into the realm where Independents start to grasp it, and Democrats start to flee for the woods.
Republicans needed a mainstream outlet to do the story, and go big with it. And so they needed to give a mainstream outlet — not Fox News, but rather one of the Big Three networks — a scoop; one so big, the other networks would have to report on it too.
Enter Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ White House correspondent and a frequent jouster with the president at press briefings (whatever the assumptions about his ideology — which I’ve been pointed to several times by TRR readers — probably being far less important than his MSM street cred.) His reporting, as Rachel Maddow said on Friday, blew the story into the mainstream media universe.
Score one for Republicans who have been desperate to get Benghazi covered on a grand scale. And paired up with IRS and AP? It was like conservative manna from Heaven.
Maddow and others are calling on Karl to give up his source, since it appears he was used to transmit false information in order to plant the seeds of a media scandal. I doubt he will do that, both because it’s not in the nature of a journalist, especially in the small, cruel world that is Washington, to burn a source — even a bad one. Every political source has friends. And every reporter needs sources with friends.
The fact is, it will ultimately be up to good old fashioned sleuthing (or another, timely leak…) to figure out who fed bogus information to ABC and TWS. And my own sources say there is a fair amount of nervousness among Republican staffers on Capitol Hill right now over this potential story. So no one’s taking the risk of losing their jobs by talking.
So who could the leaker be?
The House Intelligence Committee is chaired by Mike Rogers of Michigan, who reports say is under consideration to be the next FBI director. It’s not clear whether he attended the briefing, but it would be really shocking if Rogers or his staff double-dealt the White House in that manner (though it’s Washington, so you never know…)
Speaker Boehner, as reported above, didn’t attend the House intelligence briefing or send staff, so it seems pretty unlikely that he or his staff had direct access to the “detailed notes” passed on to Hayes and Carl. Although, Politico did report that Boehner is “obsessed” with Benghazi. Could he or his staff have gotten their hands on those notes anyway?
The Senate got the briefing first, and had it the longest, so could a Republican on the SPSCI or their senior staffers could be the culprit?
Could Marco Rubio’s staffers have been looking to up the would be Republican savior’s chances against Hillary Clinton in 2016?
The House had the hearings most concurrent to the leak, and the leak amplified the drama they worked very hard to create… So could Michelle Bachmann (who is inexplicably, a member of the House Intelligence Committee) have a staffer with a penchant for note-leaking? Or what about New York Republican Peter King?
Or could it be a less well known member, or even someone on a totally different committee?
The bottom line, as one source very familiar with the workings of Capitol Hill told me this week, is that it’s unlikely that any staffer would “go rogue” and do something like this on their own, without the direction or knowledge of their member. The level of staff who would have been invited to those briefings is quite high — probably the chief of staff and very little beyond that. Anything is possible, of course, and the source could indeed be an elected official … or not …
So who dunnit?
Inquiring minds want to know.
UPDATE: A very trusted source of mine gave me a cryptic piece of advice yesterday, which was to take a look at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. I didn’t know quite what to make of it at the time, but tonight it occurred to me: could someone on that committee also have been on the Select Committee on Intelligence, which is the one that got the email briefing in February?
Here’s the Republican membership of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (the Committee is chaired by Democrat Thom Carper of Delaware):
- Tom Coburn, (OK) Ranking Member
- John McCain (AZ)
- Ron Johnson (WI)
- Rob Portman (OH)
- Rand Paul (KY)
- Mike Enzi (WY)
- Kelly Ayotte (NH)
Pretty juicy list! Note how stacked the minority side of the committee is with presidential aspirants, potential aspirants, a former aspirant, and some of the most hardcore tea party Senators, including some, like Rand Paul, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, who have gone after, first Susan Rice, and then Hillary Clinton guns blazing on Benghazi. But only one of those Senators ALSO sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence — which is the one that my administration source says got the February briefing”
And that person is Tom Coburn.
Now, what makes Coburn interesting?
On May 9th — literally the day before Jonathan Karl’s “bombshell” report went live, Coburn appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, with his old pal and fellow House of Representatives class of 1994 alumnus (and my work colleague) Joe Scarborough (Coburn left the House in 2000, per a term limits pledge, and then ran successfully for the Senate in 2004. He announced this year that he would be retiring when his term ends in 2016.) Coburn talked about his failed “tote your gun on federal land” amendment to an unrelated bill, and about Benghazi, among other topics. And and what he had to say on Benghazi was interesting indeed (per the conservative Washington Times):
Sen. Tom Coburn said Thursday that the State Department has “real trouble” because of “glaring omission” in the information that it turned over to lawmakers in relation to the attacks in Benghazi that led to the death of a U.S. ambassador and three others at a consulate in Libya.
“I think the State Department has real trouble,” Mr. Coburn, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“Having sat on the intelligence committee and seen the review of emails that went back and forth as they developed the list, there is are glaring problem there that will eventually come out, and I can’t talk about now, but there was an omission that was given to the intelligence committee,” he said. [Emphasis added]
Asked by Mika and Joe to elaborate, Coburn said he “can’t talk about it and keep my obligation,” but he promised that it “will come out.”
Here’s the portion of the May 9 segment. The video has been cued to the relevant timecode:
So what “glaring omission,” related to the State Department, and to the emails that were shown to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which Coburn sits, and for which he appears to have said on MSNBC he attended the Benghazi email briefings in February, was Senator Coburn talking about? Did he know about the Karl revelations to come the following day (false as they turned out to be…)? If so, how did he know??? Could be nothing, could be something…
UPDATE 2: Now just by way of additional clarification, this doesn’t mean that Coburn is necessarily Jonathan Karl’s source (though it doesn’t rule him out, either.) But it is intriguing, in that it calls into question whether Coburn saw the Karl version of the Rhodes and Nuland emails, which contained information that would not have been in the emails he reviewed during the ODNI Intelligence Committee briefing in February. A “glaring omission” could mean that he was being shown content in the “new” Rhodes and Nuland emails that was “missing” in February, and that he viewed the “new” information as having been “omitted” by State or the White House, rather than viewing the “new” information as the fabrication it was.
Now, of course, that would beg the question, if this is the case, and Coburn’s secret “glaring omission” had to do with the Karl bombshell, who showed him the “emails”/summaries? It wouldn’t make sense that it would be Karl. Why would he? So was it the leaker? And is the leaker, therefore, close to Coburn? Well how close? A colleague? A Staffer? The man in the mirror?
UPDATE 3: Jonathan Karl apologized on Twitter for mischaracterizing the Ben Rhodes email, and for not making it clear his reporting was from summaries, not actual emails.
But then a funny thing happens: he stands by the fundamentals of his story. Huh. From the Huffington Post:
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” Howard Kurtz relayed a statement from the ABC News correspondent: “Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it’s become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately.”
Two problems with that.
1. The original story does not in fact, stand. Because the “news” in the original story was that Ben Rhodes, who works for the White House, weighed in, on behalf of said White House, to support a State Department spin on the Benghazi talking points. That was all that was newsworthy in Karl’s report. But since Ben Rhodes never mentioned the State Department in his email — that was the entirely made up part of the “email” Karl claimed in his reporting to have “obtained” and that his news organization supposedly “reviewed” — the guts of the Karl story were false. Like, totally false. And worse, they were either deliberately planted falsehoods fed to Karl by his source … or Karl totally misinterpreted what he was told, in a way that created news where there was one. If Karl is absolving his source, and saying essentially that HE put that “state department” bit into Rhodes’ email himself, through his own error, then he has no business covering this story. He probably has no business working in news.
2. Karl’s report said that ABC exclusively “obtained” and “reviewed” the emails. That was the selling point of the story. Karl has apologized for making it appear he’d seen the emails, rather than the summaries, and that’s appropriate. But it doesn’t end the problem, or the story, as far as I’m concerned. Actually, it just makes me more curious. Namely, why would Karl’s bosses clear a story based on emails that neither Karl nor his editors ever saw? I know I’d never get a story like that approved. Doesn’t it seem likely, as @only4rm and others have pointed out, that the only way a big, risk-averse corporate news operation would EVER run with a story based on summaries of unseen emails, would be if the source was someone pretty high ranking, and trusted. So Karl’s defense implies that the source was a Republican member of Congress, or someone very senior on their staff, is he not?
3. As Jay Rosen and others have pointed out, the White House affirmatively accused Congressional Republicans of FABRICATING the emails in Karl’s report. Fabricating. Not misinterpreting. At this point, Jonathan Karl is covering for someone on the Hill who deliberately fabricated emails in order to plant a false story with a major media outlet. There’s no reason why, if he was simply misled by someone, that he should do that. I still predict he won’t burn his source — probably, again, because it’s a member of Congress or their senior staffer — but I’m increasingly in the camp that says maybe he should.
When a confidential source burns a reporter, a reporter is within his rights to burn–that is, “out”–that source. But it almost never happens because reporters are concerned that potential sources will take it as a sign that the reporter cannot be trusted to keep their names secret. That’s bad enough. But this is worse. Karl had a chance to limit the damage to ABC News from his faulty reporting when he first responded to Jake Tapper’s report. He blew that. Inexplicably, an ABC News spokesperson then doubled down on Karl’s original reporting: strike two. They had a chance to recover by asking Karl to explain how he got misled on This Week. They blew that when they chickened out and asked Jeff Zeleny to appear instead.
In other words, the Jonathan Karl problem is now officially an ABC News problem. But the other issue for Karl, is that going forward, if he is still defending a bogus story, one begins to wonder if he’s more of a partisan than I initially felt comfortable speculating about. It also begs the question of whether when, in the future, Mr. Karl reports that a “source on Capitol Hill tells ABC” something, we should trust the story as real, as opposed to planted by opponents of the president.
Karl can fix all of that, and so can ABC. They can just tell us who gave that bogus information to their chief White House correspondent.
Mr. Coburn, anything to add?
UPDATE 4: Salon’s Adam Seitz-Wald has a good timeline of ABC’s response to their Benghazi “emails” problem. And Joan Walsh writes that Karl and ABC have only made things worse for themselves, not better.