On September 26, Eli Lake's article, U.S. Officials Knew Libya Attacks Were Work of Al Qaeda Affiliates within 24 hours appeared on the Daily Beast. In the graph below of RCP's polling average from September 1 to election day, September 26 is highlighted:
Was Lake's article a poll mover? Maybe! Obviously, the first presidential debate is what gave serious momentum to whatever gains Romney started to make in the week before that October 3 debate. The conventional wisdom is that after a summer of attack ads that defined Romney negatively, seeing Romney "unspun" on millions of TVs provoked a popular reassessment. That's a thesis I'd agree with, however as an aside I'd ask a question here that I haven't seen asked, and that's where was the media? The Obama campaign's "not one of us" ads created a caricature, but isn't it the media's job to create an accurate one?
If there was systemic media bias against Romney, Romney nonetheless had another chance to move the polls at the second debate. Should he fail to do so, he'd be out of catalysts, because the third debate offered little opportunity, designated as it was a foreign policy debate coming at a time when the great majority was quite comfortable with the incumbent's foreign policy.
Just prior to the second debate was Obama's most precarious moment in the months-long campaign. Democrat partisans at the Daily Kos complained of feeling "sick to [their] stomach," such were the stakes. Having been widely panned for being too passive in the first debate, Obama was expected to come out swinging. But how to go on offence with regard to the inevitable question about Benghazi?
With respect to what happened in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, you see, the administration's ongoing efforts to manage the message had hit a snag. Normally, the objective truth doesn't matter. It exerts a magnetic force on the media, but the administration exerts its own magnetic force. It's like walking a dog without a leash, whereby it's the relative distance to the dog that is of concern from the administration's view. You get the media to run with you, but if the media stubbornly insists on going its own way, you reluctantly run with them, in an ongoing dynamic. Here, there were concerns that later developed into a very specific question, to whit, why "security at the consulate was so lax that protesters literally walked in and set fire to the facility" when
- an August 15 cable to Hillary said "RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack"
- in the weeks before his death, Ambassador Stevens sent the State Department several requests for increased security for diplomats in Libya
- there had been repeated attacks on western targets in Benghazi over the summer, including an IED explosion on that very same U.S. diplomatic mission on June 6 and a RPG attack on the British ambassador's motorcade on June 11
Obama ended up deciding to try and cover the tracks in a high stakes gamble, by insisting that he had been at the same site all along. You see, Obama had been dropping "restore points" along the way, for possible future use in narrative reversal. If you find "restore points" dubious, you can just call it political speech that is deliberately ambiguous in order to allow for multiple narratives. Politicians do this all the time, but they don't jump tracks back to another "forgotten" narrative like Obama later did here.
Had the ambassador perished accidentally in a protest that got out of hand, it'd just a bad news item. You can only anticipate a "spontaneous" development so far. But as Susan "give the finger to Richard Holbrooke" Rice so boldly stated on September 16, the administration line was "We've decimated al Qaeda," such that a successful al Qaeda take-out of a sitting ambassador in the midst of an election campaign would have been "off message."
But immediately or even during the Benghazi attacks, it was brought to Obama's attention that it might not be possible to just blame an American (uploading videos to Youtube) for what happened. So at 4:17 of this clip of his 10:43 am September 12 Rose Garden remarks, Obama placed his "restore point" with the statement, "[n]o acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
Compare it with what he said at the Pentagon just the previous morning: "No act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for." See the difference? In both speeches the lines are similarly placed, coming near the end. But the removal of "-ism" together with adding a "s" to "act" created enough ambiguity in the Rose Garden speech for The Hill to repeat "no acts of terror" and then promptly state that "[t]he attack occurred after an angry mob swarmed the U.S. consulate" and that "[t]he impetus for the attack appeared to be anger over a U.S.-financed film..." The Hill had no reservations about associating "no acts of terror" with a description that applied equally to what happened in Cairo, minus the fatalities.
One could argue that the addition of "s" to "act" was carefully chosen to create generality about what Obama was referring to, such that he could be referring to both Benghazi and Cairo, thereby emphasizing the similarities, but Obama did drop the plural after jetting to Nevada to campaign there later that same day, saying "[n]o act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world..." and in Colorado the next day, saying "... no act of terror will go unpunished." The fact remains that he could be referring to every "act of terror" that had been committed against the U.S. over the last two decades or more, such that there was no specific reference to Benghazi at all. The most telling fact is that he could have referred to "this" act and didn't.
What did Obama know on September 12? We know that on September 11 "by 5:10 EDT an unarmed surveillance aircraft was on station over the Benghazi compound" providing video feed back to Washington and it was several hours later, "at 11:15 p.m. -- around 5 a.m. Sept. 12 in Benghazi -- the second U.S. facility there, an annex near the consulate, came under mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire." The White House had reason to be watching the feed, since the Situation Room received an email at 6:07 pm stating "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack." The London-based Quilliam Foundation had already announced that "[t]he military assault against the US Consulate in Benghazi should not be seen as part of a protest against a low budget film which was insulting Islam... [rather it] was a well planned terrorist attack that would have occurred regardless..." by the time of his Rose Garden speech on the morning of the 12th. CNN reported within two hours of that speech that "[yesterday]'s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was planned in advance, U.S. sources told CNN" and just four hours after the Rose Garden speech said "U.S. sources say they do not believe the attacks that killed Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, were in reaction to the online release of a film mocking Islam, CNN's Elise Labott reports. 'It was not an innocent mob,' one senior official said." As you can see by my edit of Wikipedia to reflect this information, this blogger was aware within 18 hours of the attack that at least "one senior U.S. official" knew that "it was not an innocent mob" and that "U.S. sources" knew that it was "planned in advance." Within 14 hours of the attack Obama had told CBS' "60 Minutes" that "this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt and my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start."
So how could Susan Rice do a Full Ginsburg (appearing on all five of the major English language Sunday talk shows) four days later to claim that there was a "spontaneous protest" that "escalated":
BOB SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with [Libyan President, Mohammed Magariaf, who just preceded you here on this show] that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?
SUSAN RICE: We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al Qaeda had some part in this?
SUSAN RICE: Well, we'll have to find out that out.
When the Rose Garden remarks had come and gone with the media having demonstrated that it would do its part by declining to link "acts of terror" to Benghazi at that time, Obama clearly reckoned that he was free to indulge his preferred scenario for what happened in Benghazi. As one can see from an American Crossroads' ad, this was still going on on September 20. See the following exchange (from 2:02 remaining in the video) with Univision in Miami regarding "the attacks in Libya":
THE PRESIDENT: ...What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests --
Q Al Qaeda?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we don’t know yet...
Note that Obama didn't find anything unreasonable about raging in the streets about a Youtube video that the U.S. government had nothing to do with. The only problem was that these "natural protests" "were used as "an excuse by extremists." What's particularly headshaking here is that Obama was still insisting on "extremists" despite his own official spokesman having already stated that "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
Key to the capacity to minimize the significance of any later backtracking to the "restore point" was the slapping of the "best available information at this time" caveat to every instance of narrative pushing. But there's still a difference between minimization and a wholesale cover, which a triggering of the "restore point" would involve. As I noted earlier, going into the second debate, Obama was under more pressure than he had been all year. Evidently he concluded that he could and should try to sweep the entire matter through the loophole of an ambiguous reference. To play a bit of amateur psychologist, it appears that Obama either consciously or unconsciously knew how dodgy it was of him to declare during the debate that "the day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror..." because he immediately proceeded to work himself into tone of high dudgeon, thundering that "the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive." Obama reprised this indignation on November 14 with the fury with which he defended Susan Rice in his first press conference in eight months.
Now most of America knows what happened next. Romney said "I think it's interesting the president just said... that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror" and instead of moderator Candy Crowley fact checking the word "this", Romney got fact checked on "act of terror." Never mind that Crowley was wrong even there, because Obama didn't actually say "act of terror" either, he said "acts". The damage was done. The takeaway for millions of viewers not particularly interested in policy was that for all of Romney's rhetoric of moderation, he believes in "wingnut" conspiracy theories and was accordingly disqualified as a candidate. The normally even-handed media watcher Erik Wemple of the Washington Post quoted a Twitter claim that Romney had "confused conservative spin for the truth" and concluded that Romney had, indeed, been "confused" by the "conservative media" bubble.
Romney's rise in the polls hit the wall, and he subsequently couldn't get around it to the finish line (if one wants to call attention to the last minute surge towards Obama in the polling graph above, I suggest looking at this study of media bias in the last week of the campaign). The highlight point of the second debate was like the "show cards" scene in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Like then, there was cheating involved, but unlike then the pot here was the White House.
Now the media could have pointed out a glaring weakness in the wingnut echo chamber theory, and that's that it wasn't just Romney that got caught up in it, but the White House's own spokesman!
Q No, I just hadn’t heard the White House say that this was an act of terrorism or a terrorist attack. And I just --
JAY CARNEY: I don’t think the fact that we hadn’t...
The media's sins of commission were various (such as Slate journo David Weigel's claim that that "On those Sunday shows, she said that extremists used a protest as a cover for their planned attack" when Rice not only made no claim that any element was "planned" but specifically rejected such a contention saying "we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned") but more grievous were the sins of omission. Instead of reminding readers of Mr Carney's "we hadn't," for example, the New York Times told its readers that "some administration officials" "appeared to have forgotten" Obama's earlier references to "terror"! How about actually naming those officials, which clearly included the White House Press Secretary as well as Rice, so that readers can decide for themselves whether there is just innocents"forgetting" here or whether there is something more Nixonesque at work. In the case of Obama himself, on September 20 he not only would he have had to have "forgotten" his own references to "terror" on September 12 and 13, he would have had to then remember again between September 20 and the time of the second debate.
I've noted before that in 2009 a NPR journo viewed the administration's conduct as "Nixonesque," but he in fact wasn't the only one. Anderson Cooper of CNN also asked at that time "do you see shades of Nixon here?" and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, who occasionally appears on PBS Newshour as the "left" voice to David Brooks' "conservative" voice, thought that the White House might have been giving off "a distinct Nixonian - Agnewesque? - aroma..." Surrogates for the White House complained loudly about the comparison at the time, but I pointed out even then that there seemed to be a pattern developing, saying "[t]hat suggestion of mine that FOX will be frozen out in terms of participation has come true more thoroughly than I expected." Now guess who was frozen out of a briefing on Benghazi...
UPDATE November 21:
Some have argued that I'm making too much out of "decimate," such that a contemporaneous acknowledgment of a terrorist attack with an al Qaeda link wouldn't have been significantly "off message." Here I could point to the sentence immediately preceding Rice's claim here where she herself connects it to the campaign trail: "I think American people know the record very well. President Obama said when he was running for President that he would refocus our efforts and attentions on al Qaeda." I could also note the sensitivity of administration officials elsewhere, such as the ferocity with which Hillary spokesman Philippe Reines went after CNN and, subsequently, Michael Hastings of Buzzfeed for being too nosy (as an aside, what happened in Benghazi doesn't seem to have stuck to Hillary at all, perhaps because so many State Department sources blamed Petraeus' CIA). But Exhibit A here is New York Times' opinion pages editor Andrew Rosenthal trotting out the following as "The Benghazi Conspiracy":
[McCain] and other Republicans seem to think that the White House, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, played down the possibility that Al Qaeda operatives were behind the attack, so that President Obama could boast on the campaign trail that his policies had decimated the terrorist organization. In other words he lied to the American public so that he could win re-election.
Rosenthal seems to be of the view that his second sentence would readily follow his first if only there were some truth to the administration having having claimed that they had "decimated the terrorist organization." Point being here that whether this blogger is using using the word "correctly" or not is beside the point because it is Susan Rice who is using it, and using it in the way a NYT editor believes would prove a "conspiracy."
I"ll also note here another support point for my thesis that "the takeaway for millions of viewers not particularly interested in policy was that for all of Romney's rhetoric of moderation, he.. 'confused conservative spin for the truth'" in the form of Joe Klein's TIME magazine piece. What jumped out at me was:
the President called the Benghazi attack an 'act of terror' the day after it took place – which proved a rather embarrassing moment for Mitt Romney in the third debate, when Candy Crowley corrected him on the point (Romney’s information throughout the campaign was defective, having been sourced by right-wing fantasy reports).
Would "right-wing fantasy reports" include the CNN-cited September 12 Quilliam report that directly contradicts your claim that "there would have been no terrorist attack if the film hadn’t provided the opportunity for mayhem," Joe? I take it you'd rather believe that the attack was coincidentally on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and that there were coincidentally no other "protests" in Libya regarding the film. Perhaps, Joe, you should talk to you own colleague at TIME, James Poniewozik, about the dangers of "right-wing fantasy reports" given that Poniewozik linked to CNN's story "Pro-al Qaeda group seen behind deadly Benghazi attack" when the issue was whether "the deadly attack in Benghazi was planned independently of the movie protests" or not. I suppose the report of a Libyan officer who was there for the attack on the safe house saying "I don't know how they found the place to carry out the attack. It was planned, the accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries," is yet another "right wing fantasy report." Joe Klein pops the right wing media bubble to advise us that not only was the "first [attack] a spontaneous response to the anti-Islamic film that had caused similar protests in Cairo and elsewhere," but the second attack raining precise mortar fire down on the secret safe house was also executed by "protesters." Even the administration doesn't believe this anymore, Joe.