Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
Twenty years ago, when she was a young Foreign Service officer in Moscow, Victoria Nuland gave me a dazzling briefing on the diverse factions inside the Russian parliament. Now she is a friend I typically see a couple times a year, at various functions, and I have watched her rise, working with everybody from Dick Cheney to Hillary Clinton, serving as ambassador to NATO, and now as the spokeswoman at the State Department.
Over the past few weeks, the spotlight has turned on Nuland. The charge is that intelligence officers prepared accurate talking points after the attack in Benghazi, Libya, and that Nuland, serving her political masters, watered them down.
The charges come from two quarters, from Republicans critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi and intelligence officials shifting blame for Benghazi onto the State Department.
It’s always odd watching someone you know get turned into a political cartoon on the cable talk shows. But this case is particularly disturbing because Nuland did nothing wrong.
Let’s review the actual events. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed on Sept. 11. For this there is plenty of blame to go around. We now know, thanks to reporting by The New York Times, that Benghazi was primarily a CIA operation. Furthermore, intelligence officers underestimated how dangerous the situation was. They erred in vetting the Libyan militia that was supposed to provide security.
The next day, Nuland held a background press briefing, a transcript of which is available on the State Department’s website. She had two main points. There’s a lot we don’t know. The attack was conducted by Libyan extremists. She made no claim that it was set off by an anti-Muslim video or arose spontaneously from demonstrations.
On Sept. 14, David Petraeus, then the director of the CIA, gave a classified briefing to lawmakers in Congress. The lawmakers asked him to provide talking points so they could discuss the event in the news media.
CIA analysts began work on the talking points. Early drafts, available on Jonathan Karl’s ABC News website, reflect the confused and fragmented state of knowledge. The first draft, like every subsequent one, said the Benghazi attacks were spontaneously inspired by protests in Cairo. It also said that extremists with ties to al-Qaida participated.
The CIA analysts quickly scrubbed references to al-Qaida from the key part of the draft, investigators on Capitol Hill now tell me.
On Friday evening of Sept. 14, the updated talking points were emailed to the relevant officials in various departments, including Nuland. She wondered why the CIA was giving members of Congress talking points that were far more assertive than anything she could say or defend herself. She also noted that the talking points left the impression that the CIA had issued all sorts of warnings before the attack.
Remember, this was at a moment when the State Department was taking heat for what was mostly a CIA operation, while doing verbal gymnastics to hide the CIA’s role. Intentionally or not, the CIA seemed to be repaying the favor by trying to shift blame to the State Department for ignoring intelligence.
Nuland didn’t seek to rewrite the talking points. In fact, if you look at the drafts that were written while she was sending emails, the drafts don’t change much from one to the next. She was just kicking the process up to the policymaker level.
At this point, Nuland’s participation in the whole affair ends.
On Saturday morning, what’s called a deputies committee meeting was held at the White House. I’m told the talking points barely came up at that meeting. Instead, the CIA representative said he would take proactive measures to streamline them. That day, the agency reduced the talking points to the bare nub Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was given before going on the Sunday talk shows.
Several things were apparently happening. Each of the different players had their hands on a different piece of the elephant. If there was any piece of the talking points that everybody couldn’t agree upon, it got cut. Second, the administration proceeded with extreme caution about drawing conclusions, possibly overlearning the lessons from the Bush years. Third, as the memos moved up the CIA management chain, the higher officials made them more tepid (this is apparently typical). Finally, in the absence of a clear narrative, the talking points gravitated toward the least politically problematic story, blaming the anti-Muslim video and the Cairo demonstrations.
Is this a tale of hard intelligence being distorted for political advantage? Maybe. Did Victoria Nuland scrub the talking points to serve Clinton or President Barack Obama? That charge is completely unsupported by the evidence. She was caught in a brutal interagency turf war, and she defended her department. The accusations against her are bogus.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.