Part 4—The way the news looked in real time: Once again, this is the analysis to which we were treated on Sunday:
When Susan Rice appeared on those Sunday shows, she should have used her security clearance to obtain, and then release, classified information!
And not only that:
She should have agreed with the rather wild statement made by that Libyan pol!
U.S. intelligence hadn’t established the claim the Libyan pol was making; as far we know, they still haven't. But so what? Rice should have agreed with him anyway!
On their face, these judgments are bizarre, absurd—but three major journalists stated them this Sunday. Maureen Dowd offered this silly advice in her New York Times column; Bob Schieffer soon said much the same thing a bit later on Face the Nation.
Completing the trio, Lord Dowdinpantz essentially wrote the same column as Lady Dowd. Like Dowd, he told us what a big-mouth Rice is. He then said she should have agreed, right there on TV, with what the Libyan said.
No one really believes such stupid ideas. Presumably, the trio were driving somebody’s script.
Whose water were these people carrying? We don’t know. You can decide!
That said, we thought you might want to check one last part of Lady Dowd’s column. With apologies for reprinting this crap, let’s check out the highlighted claim:
DOWD (11/18/12): Rice was given the toned-down talking points, but she has access to classified information. Though she told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the extremist elements could have included Qaeda affiliates or Al Qaeda itself, she mostly used her appearances to emphasize the story line of the spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video. She disputed the contention of the president of Libya’s General National Congress, who called the attack “preplanned” when he talked to Schieffer just before Rice.That entire passage is blindingly stupid, right down to the brainless statement about “the video story.” But in the highlighted claim, Dowd says Rice should have gone beyond the account she was given by U.S. intelligence, “given that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities and sources in news accounts considered it a terrorist attack days before Rice went on the shows.”
Some have wondered if Rice, who has a bull-in-a-china-shop reputation, is diplomatic enough for the top diplomatic job. But she would have been wise to be more bull-in-a-china-shop and vet her talking points, given that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities and sources in news accounts considered it a terrorist attack days before Rice went on the shows. (The president and his spokesman also clung to the video story for too long.)
You can probably see how foolish that is. In our modern press scrum, all sorts of people say all sorts of things “in news accounts.” It’s absurd to think that Rice should have called it “a terrorist attack” just because someone else had already done so.
This idea is especially silly now that officials have explained why they didn’t include this claim in the official assessment from which Rice was working.
As usual, Dowd’s assessment was monumentally silly. But was her factual statement accurate? Were members of the intelligence community calling Benghazi a terrorist attack “days before Rice went on the shows?”
We’d have to say that wasn’t true in Dowd’s own paper, the New York Times. Nor was it true in another well-known paper, the Washington Post.
Of course, it’s stupid to say that Rice should have said X because somebody else had already said it. But as a measure of Dowd's awful work, we thought you might want to be refreshed about what was actually being said in the Post and the Times at that point.
Rice appeared on the Sunday shows on Sunday, September 16. Two days earlier, the New York Times had given a detailed account of what had happened at the consulate.
Suliman Ali Zway reported from Benghazi. Here’s what Dowd’s own paper was saying two days before Rice appeared:
ZWAY (9/14/12): The mayhem here that killed four United States diplomatic personnel, including the ambassador, was actually two attacks—the first one spontaneous and the second highly organized and possibly aided by anti-American infiltrators of Libya's young government, a top Libyan security official said Thursday.How accurate was that account? Like Dowd, we still don’t know. But that account appeared in the Times two days before Rice appeared on TV.
The account by the official, Wanis el-Sharif, given to a few reporters here, was the most detailed yet of the chaotic events on Tuesday in this eastern Libyan city that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the first United States ambassador to be killed on duty in more than 30 years.
The deaths occurred amid a wave of anti-American protests convulsing the Middle East, inspired by an inflammatory anti-Islamic video, ''The Innocence of Muslims,'' that has spread on the Internet in recent days since it was publicized in Egypt. Protests expanded on Thursday to at least a half-dozen other countries, including Iran.
Mr. Sharif, a deputy interior minister, said Mr. Stevens and a second American diplomat, Sean Smith, were killed in the initial attack, which began as a disorganized but angry demonstration by civilians and militants outside the American Consulate on Tuesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The protest escalated into an assault by as many as 200 people, some armed with grenades, who set the building on fire.
The second wave, Mr. Sharif said, was hours later, when the consulate staff was being spirited to a safe house a mile away. At that point, a team of Libyan security officials was evacuating them in a convoy guarded by Marines and Libyan security officials who had been flown from Tripoli to retrieve them.
Mr. Sharif said the second attack was a premeditated ambush on the convoy by assailants who were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and apparently knew the route the vehicles were taking. The other two Americans—identified on Thursday as Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, both former members of the Navy SEALs—were killed in that assault. At least 12 Americans and 18 Libyan security officials were wounded, Mr. Sharif said.
''The first part was chaotic and disorganized. The second part was organized and planned,'' he said. The ambushers in the second assault, he said, apparently ''had infiltrators who were feeding them the information.''
No one called the killing a terrorist attack in this detailed news report. The next day, the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz offered this updated account of what had happened:
HORWITZ (9/15/12): U.S. intelligence officials said that, despite the delay in getting into Benghazi, agencies have been able to draw intelligence from an array of sources, including news footage of the attack, intercepted phone calls and e-mails, and information from human sources recruited by the CIA.As Rice would do the next morning, “the officials stressed the preliminary nature of the assessments”—though Dowd wanted Rice to jump up and blab a finished account of what had occurred.
The officials said they have reached a tentative conclusion that the assault was carried out by a group aligned with al-Qaeda but not directed by the terrorist network's core leadership. The officials stressed the preliminary nature of the assessments, noting that a massive analytic effort involving every agency in the intelligence community is still in its early stages.
"We still don't assess that this is core al-Qaeda," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "We assess that this is most likely a group best described as al-Qaeda sympathizers."
"We still don't assess that this is core al-Qaeda," a senior official told Horwitz. He said the killers were most likely sympathizers, not al Qaeda itself.
According to Dowd’s column, members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities were calling this a terrorist attack “days before Rice went on the shows.” In all honesty, that wasn’t happening in the Post and the Times.
These papers showed appropriate restraint as they tried to sort out what had happened. The same was true of these papers’ sources, though things may have been more wild and woolly in the newspapers with which Dowd self-excites.
On Sunday morning, September 16, the Times offered another long account in which David Kirkpatrick tried to assess who had been behind the killings. In his report, that anti-Muslim video was still presumed to the source of the anger and violence, despite Dowd’s sniffing dismissal of this as a possible motive.
To help you see how major newspapers actually sounded on the day Rice appeared, we offer this lengthy clip from Kirkpatrick’s report:
KIRKPATRICK (9/16/12): Ansar al-Sharia, the brigade of rebel fighters that witnesses say led the attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, holds that democracy is incompatible with Islam. It has paraded the streets with weapons calling for an Islamic state, and a few months ago its leader boasted publicly that its fighters could flatten a foreign consulate.In the Times, Bukatef said the presumed killers were “extremists.” That’s the word Ambassador Rice used on TV that morning.
But if the group's ideology may put it on the fringe of Libyan society, its day-to-day presence in society does not. It is just one of many autonomous battalions of heavily armed men formed during and after the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi who have filled the void in public security left by his fall, resisting calls to disarm by saying that the weak transitional government is not up to the job.
Ansar al-Sharia's fighters have given conflicting stories about their role in the attack. Said to number fewer than 200, they can usually be found at Al Jala Hospital in Benghazi, where they act as its guards and protectors. And when instead they turned their guns on the United States mission, American security officers and the Libyan authorities did not call for help from any formal military or police force—there is none to speak of—but turned to the leader of another autonomous militia with its own Islamist ties.
''We had to coordinate everything,'' said that militia leader, Fawzi Bukatef, recalling the first phone call about the attack that he received from the mission's security team. The Libyan government, he said, ''was absent.''
The organization and firepower used in the assault, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has raised alarm in Washington about the possibility of links to Al Qaeda and a premeditated conspiracy that found a pretext in anger over an American-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. But to Libyans, the battle for the mission has underscored how easy it is for a spark like the earlier protest in Cairo to set off such an attack in post-Qaddafi Libya, when major cities are still controlled by a patchwork of independent militias and all keep their weapons at the ready.
The battle over the mission has also became the latest skirmish in a larger struggle unfolding across the region between hard-line and moderate Islamists seeking to determine the fate of the Arab Spring.
The leaders of Libya's interim government say they hope public dismay at the attack on the mission will be the catalyst they need to finally disarm and control the militias. Mr. Stevens, the United States ambassador, was a widely admired figure for his support during the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi, and in the days after the attack far larger crowds than the one that attacked the mission turned out in both Tripoli and Benghazi to demonstrate their sadness at his death and their support for the United States.
But since the militiamen, who still call themselves ''revolutionaries,'' remain the power on the streets, there is an open question who will disarm or control them.
''The government is required to do so,'' said Mr. Bukatef, leader of eastern Libya's most potent armed force, the February 17 Brigade. ''But the government can't do it without the revolutionaries,'' he said, noting that many brigades continued to operate independently even though they now nominally report to the defense minister. ''It takes a delicate approach.''
Ansar al-Sharia declined to be interviewed for this article. The brigade in Benghazi, whose name means Supporter of Islamic Law, came together during the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.
Mr. Bukatef said that its numbers had seemed to range from 50 to about 200. He claimed that some of its members were responsible for the assassination during the uprising of the rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes, in revenge for his previous role as a minister in the Qaddafi government who led a crackdown on Islamists. The transitional government, Mr. Bukatef said, was too weak to confront such a brigade, and so no one has been charged with the crime.
Many more-secular politicians in Libya are suspicious of Mr. Bukatef and his brigade because of their own Islamist reputation. He has been a member of Libya's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and one of his group's commanders reporting to him is Ismail al-Salabi, who leads a group of Islamist fighters and is the brother of Libya's most prominent Islamist thinker, Ali al-Salabi. But unlike Ansar al-Sharia, both Mr. Bukatef and the Salabi brothers have emphasized their conviction that Islam requires a democratic, constitutional government.
Ansar al-Sharia, Mr. Bukatef said, was excluded from meetings of a larger eastern Libyan militia alliance that he oversees. ''Some of their members were with us at the beginning,'' he said, but ''we do not believe people who do not believe in the government are entitled to be with us.''
Mr. Bukatef dismissed suggestions by some in the West that Ansar al-Sharia might have ties to Al Qaeda or other international militants. ''They're Libyans. They're extremists. They are outlaws,'' he said, noting that some had served time in Colonel Qaddafi's jails—a radicalizing experience for many Libyan Islamists.
Witnesses at the scene of the assault on the mission said they saw pickup trucks labeled with the group's logo, which is well known in Benghazi. Fighters attacking the embassy acknowledged then that they belonged to Ansar al-Sharia, although they said there were other unarmed protesters joining them.
But amid the backlash against the attack—and the news that the beloved United States ambassador was killed—the group's leaders have tried to distance themselves from the assault, often in muddled or contradictory ways. On the morning after the attack, a spokesman for the group made a statement to local television from the hospital saluting the assault, approvingly recalling a similar mob attack on the Italian consulate in Benghazi six years ago after an Italian minister wore a T-shirt mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
But the spokesman, Hani al-Mansouri, denied that the Ansar al-Sharia brigade had participated as ''an independent entity following orders.'' He said, ''It was doing its work in Jala hospital and other places where it has assigned roles.'' And at a news conference on Thursday night, amid growing threats of retaliation against the perpetrators of the attack, Mr. Mansouri denied that any of the group's fighters had participated, pleading with the news media to accept his denial.
To its credit, the New York Times was trying to puzzle out the facts about who had staged the attacks, and why. Two months later, its most famous and most ridiculous columnist created her latest inane concoction. Among many offenses, she painted a rather inaccurate portrait of the news coverage in the days before Rice’s TV appearance.
Dowd has been like this for some time. She’s never been dumber than she was on Sunday, when she offered various inane pronouncements and reinvented a whole bunch of facts.
Twenty years back—in 1992!—Katherine Boo presciently warned about the press corps’ “creeping Dowdism.”
Boo knew what she was talking about. This past week, Boo won the National Book Award for a deeply serious book on a deeply serious topic. Dowd was presenting her latest pile of major crap.
Dowd clucked about cat fights, cavorted and played. She offered the world’s most absurd pseudo-advice. She invented facts; she hissed and hiss-spat.
By now, this ugly nonsense is the norm in the world of our broken-souled “press corps.” The big stars took it in stride—and they endlessly will.