LAND OF SCRIPT: Misrepresenting Rice!

FRIDAY, JANUARY 3, 2014

Part 4—Kirkpatrick keeps script alive: Modern journalistic practice is marked by at least two widespread problems.

One the one hand, our press corps displays a stunning lack of basic journalistic skills. (The ability to paraphrase fairly, and to quote correctly, are two such basic skills.)

They also display a devotion to script. Nine years ago, Paul Krugman described the phenomenon:
KRUGMAN (8/3/04): Reading the Script

A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like campaigndesk.org, mediamatters.org and dailyhowler.com. It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media “script,” a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.
Krugman was right on target! Over the past several decades, our discourse has been ruled by script. Again and again, these “story lines” have shaped the coverage of various issues and events, often “in the teeth” of rather obvious evidence.

One such script came into existence in September 2012. This script appeared after Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday programs to discuss the Benghazi attack.

The attack occurred on September 11, 2012. Five days later, on September 16, Rice appeared on all five Sunday programs.

Rice was quickly denounced as a liar. Even now, as David Kirkpatrick debunks several key parts of the powerful Benghazi script, the notion that Rice misspoke in some major way can’t be put to rest.

Within our journalistic culture, script is a very powerful force—and our journalists aren’t real good at paraphrasing the statements of public figures. In his piece in last Sunday’s Times, Kirkpatrick even misquotes Rice at one point.

A person could argue that he misquotes her twice. Indeed, that would be our judgment.

Does this “matter” at this point? Not necessarily, no—unless you care about the way elite journalism works.

Does this really “matter?” As a result of the mugging of Rice, she apparently lost the chance to serve as secretary of state. Instead, Rice was named national security adviser, the position she holds today. (Senate confirmation isn’t required for that post.)

But how odd! Even as Kirkpatrick debunks two key parts of the Benghazi script, he continues to misrepresent what Rice said on those Sunday programs. This lets him say that Democrats misspoke in a major way, as did the Republicans.

Can anyone here play this game at all? Let’s see how Kirkpatrick misrepresents what Rice said.

In this part of Kirkpatrick’s report, he starts to describe what Rice said on those Sunday programs. He also presents his basic framework, in which each side misspoke.

This is sometimes called moral equivalence:
KIRKPATRICK (12/29/13): Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests.
That's well-crafted equivalence! And Kirkpatrick is already misrepresenting what Rice actually said.

Did Susan Rice actually say that the anti-Islamic video the video “inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand?” In a sense, but not as such!

We’d call that a very lazy account of what Rice said that day. Below, we’ll show you why we say that.

In the following passage, Kirkpatrick develops his account of what Rice said that day. Kirkpatrick actually seems to quote some statements from Meet the Press:
KIRKPATRICK: After the attack, Mr. Obama vowed retribution. “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” he said in a televised address from Washington on the morning of Sept. 12. “And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

But much of the debate about Benghazi in Washington has revolved around statements made four days later in television interviews by Ms. Rice, who was then ambassador to the United Nations.

“What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video.”

Republicans, pouncing on the misstatement, have argued that the Obama administration was trying to cover up Al Qaeda’s role. “It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said last month on Fox News.

“This was a preplanned, organized terrorist event,” he said, “not a video. That whole part was debunked time and time again.”
From Kirkpatrick’s account of the Benghazi attack, it’s clear that Republicans like Rogers made some grossly inaccurate statements about the attack. The attack was not “preplanned” in any significant way, Kirkpatrick reports. And the anger behind the attack actually was fueled by the video, which was producing disturbances all over the Muslim world.

Did Rice make inaccurate statements too? In that passage, Kirkpatrick says she did—and this softens the blow as Kirkpatrick debunks the basic GOP script.

Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick flatly misquotes one part of what Rice said on Meet the Press. A person could sensibly argue that he misquotes her two separate times in just that one paragraph.

Has Rice been quoted accurately and fairly in the highlighted passage? On Wednesday, we posted the full text of what she said on Meet the Press. This is the exchange from which Kirkpatrick takes both his quotes:
GREGORY (9/16/12): Can you say definitively that the attacks on our consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Stevens and others there, security personnel, that was spontaneous? Was it a planned attack? Was there a terrorist element to it?

RICE: Well, let me tell you the best information we have at present.

First of all, there is an FBI investigation, which is ongoing, and we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired.

But putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo—almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.

What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which, unfortunately, are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and that escalated into a much more violent episode.

Obviously, that's our best judgment now. We'll await the results of the investigation, and the president has been very clear—we'll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
What’s wrong with the way Kirkpatrick quotes Rice? Let us count two ways:

First, and this is very important: Quite plainly, Rice stated, again and again, that she was only giving a preliminary assessment.

This was “the best information we have at present,” she told David Gregory. An investigation was underway, she said. “We look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired.”

Continuing, Rice said she was offering “the best information that we have available to us today.” She said it was “our current assessment [of] what happened.”

She then proceeded to tell Gregory what “we think” took place. When she was done, she told him again that this was just “our best judgment now.” She said she would “await the results of the investigation” she had cited.

How many ways can a person say that she isn’t giving a definitive assessment? That statement by Rice ran 171 words. By our count, she told Gregory six different times that this wasn’t a final assessment.

Six times, in less than two hundred words! But go ahead—look at the way Kirkpatrick quotes Rice. This is horrible journalism:
WHAT RICE ACTUALLY SAID: “First of all, there is an FBI investigation, which is ongoing, and we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo..."

WHAT KIRKPATRICK PRESENTED: “What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Rice was at pains to say that this wasn’t a definitive assessment. Quite plainly, Kirkpatrick makes it sound like she did make a flat assertion concerning what had occurred.

That is terrible journalism. In that part of his presentation, Kirkpatrick presents some actual words Rice actually spoke. But he cuts them out of a longer sentence and a fuller statement, omitting some very fundamental context.

In the process, he changes the meaning of what Rice said. It’s astonishing that a major New York Times reporter, overseen by a coffle of New York Times editors, thinks that is an acceptable way to quote a public figure.

What follows is even more astounding. In this case, Kirkpatrick actually changes the words Rice spoke. By anyone’s definition, he flatly misquotes Rice.

We’ll show you Rice’s longer statement and Kirkpatrick’s version of same. In the parts we highlight, Kirkpatrick changes Rice’s actual words. In the process, he changes her meaning:
WHAT RICE ACTUALLY SAID: But putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo—almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.

WHAT KIRKPATRICK PRESENTED: What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video.
Wow. Fifteen months later, just wow.

We’re showing you the official transcript of what Rice actually said. This transcript is widely available. If you watch the tape of the Meet the Press program, you will see that the transcript is perfectly accurate.

Kirkpatrick’s “quotation” isn’t accurate! He has omitted part of what Rice said, thereby changing her meaning:

In Rice’s actual statement, she plainly said that the demonstrations in Cairo “were prompted, of course, by the video.” Plainly, that statement was accurate.

But alas! In last Sunday’s New York Times, Kirkpatrick omitted one part of the statement. In the process, he makes it sound like Rice said that “what happened in Benghazi” was “prompted by the video.”

Plainly, that isn’t what she said. Transcript and tape both makes this clear. Kirkpatrick flatly misquotes that part of Rice’s statement. In the process, he changes her meaning, turning a plainly accurate statement into an edgier claim.

Immediately after misquoting Rice, Kirkpatrick tell us that Republicans “pounced on the misstatement.”

Fifteen months have passed since the Benghazi attack. Fifteen months have passed since Rice appeared on those Sunday programs.

The transcript of Rice’s statement is available. The words she says on the tape are perfectly clear.

And yet, with fifteen months to get this right, Kirkpatrick flatly misquotes one part of Rice’s statement, changing her meaning in the process. In a more serious bit of shoddy quotation, he makes it sound like she gave a definitive assessment of what had occurred.

In fact, she gad warned Gregory, again and again, that she was only giving the best information we have at present, the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment.

She said she was giving our best judgment now. She said the administration would await the results of the investigation. But so what? Fifteen months later, all those disclaimers are AWOL in Kirkpatrick’s 7300-word report. Kirkpatrick makes it sound like Rice offered a definitive assessment—and he even flatly misquotes her, turning a perfectly accurate statement into a sketchier claim.

In his lengthy report, Kirkpatrick debunks two key parts of the Benghazi script. But for whatever reason, he misrepresents what Rice said on those programs.

This lets him soften the blow as he debunks those GOP claims. Susan Rice presented a bogus story line too, he now gets to declare.

For whatever reason, Kirkpatrick keeps script alive—at least, one part of the script.

Is Rice misquoted once, or twice, in Kirkpatrick’s report? We’ll go with the larger number.

We’re sorry. But when someone tells you, again and again, that she isn’t making a definitive assessment, you can’t chop her statement down to make it sound like she did offer such an assessment.

But then, we live in a very strange world. On the one hand, we live in a land of script. But it’s also a land of relentless journalistic incompetence.

Again and again, our ranking “journalists” show the world that they lack even the most basic skills. On the brighter side, as Kirkpatrick continues to misquote Rice, he continues to keep script alive.

He softens the blow against GOP bullroar. Manufacturing pleasing equivalence, Kirkpatrick keeps bullroar alive!

Tomorrow—epilogue: On Sunday’s Face the ation, Bob Schieffer needs to explain

Back to that earlier paraphrase: Let’s return to an earlier point. Was Kirkpatrick on solid ground when he paraphrased Rice this way?
KIRKPATRICK: Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
Did Rice say that the video inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand?

We’d call that a very weak paraphrase. According to Rice, the best current assessment went like this:

The video inspired spontaneous street protests. Extremists armed with heavy weapons then came to the scene. They triggered the deadly violence.

Rice told a two-part story on those Sunday programs. As they invented their script, the GOP reduced her story to a one-part affair.

They eliminated her reference to the extremists who came to the scene with the heavy weapons. This made her story sound implausible, unlikely, strange.

Fifteen months later, Kirkpatrick is still paraphrasing Rice that way. This is a gift to the GOP.

People! Keep script alive!

34 comments:

  1. So, is the attempt at balance (both sides made mistakes) intended to keep Republicans reading the Times by validating their views, or is it intended to keep the Times from being perceived as left-dominated? Are they just trying to keep everyone somewhat happy?

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    1. Or . . . maybe both sides were not entirely correct, and the truth is somewhere in between "meticulously planned Al Qaeda plot" and "spontaneous demonstration."

      You know. Like The Times has reported.



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    2. So, you are saying you entirely disagree with what is written in the post above and prefer to believe that Rice did make a misstatement? Or are you just saying that whatever Bob writes, regardless of content, is poo poo doody?

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    3. Yes, Rice made misstatements, and once upon a time Somerby even admitted that much. But then he bent over backwards to excuse a high-ranking official from repeatedly making the same misstatements by saying she used weasle words -- "The best information we have . . ."

      Which later turned out to be wrong.

      Good lordy, folks. Drop your tribalism for one second and admit that the Obama administration made a serious mistake in sending Rice out to the Sunday talk shows with only a set of talking points and no real, solid information.

      Then you can turn around and see how the GOP has attempted to turn a molehill into a mountain.

      In other words, it doesn't have to be "our side made no mistakes and their side made all of them."

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    4. I think you have a convenient memory. I don't recall Somerby citing errors by Rice.

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    5. Anon at 2:48
      If a Republican Administration, commenting on a confusing, days old crisis halfway around the world, gave an account steeped in disclaimers about how this is the best information we have now, and some of it turned out (possibly) to be incorrect- I would hold it against them for about zero seconds. This is a state we call "adulthood", and you can't really grasp it because you are a child. It's difficult to imagine, in a serious matter such as this one ( the left might get away with a certain like silliness on a silly matter), however, it would have never become an issue, because media like The Times need not indulge liberal readers in this fashion.

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  2. You've got to have the stature of Chomsky to be able to ask the "elephant in the living room" question -

    Why is the US there and practically everywhere else killing Muslims?

    Even the mealy-mouthed liberalism pre 9/11 is now gone - all mainstream media are hyper-patriotic, offering knee-jerk support to all Muslim-killing adventures.

    Yes - the so-called Liberal media are a sad caricature (and amazingly, the RIGHT was against the Muslim-killing Obama wanted to embark on in Syria) - we have killed one million plus Iraqis and left the country in a shambles on a false pretext and practically nobody has a word to say about it.

    But gotcha!s against libruls on trivialities are fair game.

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    1. Are you seriously asking why the US has embassies? Do you not see embassies as a way to avoid killing Muslims by using diplomacy to resolve conflicts? Are you busy on other websites asking Muslims why they attack embassies and why they are using terrorist tactics that so often kill their own people? Gotchas based on "killing is wrong" waged against sites like Daily Howler (which no doubt agrees with that statement) are much easier for you to pursue too.

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    2. So who else has embassies in Benghazi?

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    3. Here is the list:

      Bulgaria (Consulate-General)
      Egypt (Consulate-General)
      Germany (liaison office)
      Italy (Consulate-General)
      Malta (liaison office)
      Morocco (Consulate-General)
      Qatar (Consulate-General)
      Syria (Consulate-General)
      Tunisia (Consulate-General)
      Turkey (Consulate-General)
      United Kingdom (liaison office)
      European Union (liaison office)

      Are they all there to kill Muslims too?

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    4. Syria has a consulate in Benghazi? Seems kind of dangerous. Could you link you source for the above list? Looks like good info to have...

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    5. Wikipedia -- search embassies libya

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    6. Anon 920,

      Thanks. But where exactly would the Assad gov't have a consulate in Benghazi? Does this really exist?

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    7. Try www.consulate-info.com

      It lists a street address & phone #. It is behind the Children's Hospital. I haven't been there personally, not that you'd believe me if I said I had. Why don't you try calling them?

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    8. That's the progressive Elephant in the room changing the subject. It's another question, perhaps a valid one, but a like question is thrown by a progressive every time a concrete abuse of a Democrat comes up, no matter how badly it illustrates the right slant of the Press. It's all part of "above it all" syndrome.

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  3. People like Kirkpatrick can't be that stupid so they really must be creating false equivalences intentionally in order to placate the right-wing extremists.

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    1. The blogger sees that of course - but the gotcha!s won't work if he comes from there.

      The times didn't pimp the Judith Miller stories about WMD in Iraq in a vacuum - Ann Coulter explicitly threatened them with bombing ("McVeigh should have "gone to" the NY Times building") and nobody let out a peep about it.

      The left has been either pissing its pants when it comes to foreign policy or trying to out-right-wing the right for quite some time now.

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    2. They are not placating right wing extremists. They are placating right wing advertisers and consumers.

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  4. AnonymousJanuary 3, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    Yeah right - we were there quietly carrying out lawful consular activities and perhaps giving out Fulbright scholarships and so forth.

    http://wizbangblog.com/2012/11/13/what-exactly-were-we-doing-in-benghazi-anyway/

    Has the blogger EVER commented on US foreign policy except to incorrectly hint that "the war on Gore" put a president in office who was worse for Iraq?

    At least Bush carried out a total military war - Clinton/Gore killed children continuously for eight years and their minion Madeline Albright said "it was worth it".

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    1. Once again, for the dense: Bob's focus, as stated at the top of the page, is "musings on the mainstream 'press corps' and the american discourse."

      His purpose IS NOT to comment on foreign policy. Numbskulls!

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    2. And unfortunately, Bob's "focus" has become yet another vanity blog like thousands upon thousands on the 'Net, and attracting the same tiny audience.

      So when will he start "musing on the mainstream 'press corps' and stop reassuring his few followers how much smarter he is than "them" and how much smarter they are by listing to him rather than "them"?

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    3. Worthless comment. If you don't care about the failures of the press corps, then don't bother coming here. It's as simple as that. Presumably, when the Kirkpatricks stop pulling this same kind of shit, when actual journalists become ashamed not to bend over backwards to avoid following scripts, then the need for this focus will be over.

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    4. Oh, I do care about the failures of the press corps. Unfortunately, Kilpatrick's piece on Benghazi is hardly a "failure," despite what Somerby tells you.

      Now before your next knee-jerk reaction, pause and ponder this: Had Kirkpatrick worked for any other newspaper than the New York Times or Washington Post, and had this piece appeared in any other newspaper, would Somerby have even known about it, let alone read and commented about it?

      Then as you ponder how extremely limited his scope of media criticism is (NYT WP, MSNBC, and nothing else), ask yourself about how many times he finds anything, anything at all, in those three media which to him represent the sum total of all media worth criticizing, that is praiseworthy, or whether he can't bring himself to praise anything that they do at all, and why.

      Now please, follow the advice you have given to a commenter below and go read Kirkpatrick's piece. Then compare and contrast that with the Oct. 27 piece on 60 minutes, a truly sloppy, horrible work that Bob commented on exactly ONCE and nearly two weeks after it aired.

      And why did he all but miss that one? Because he was too busy proving to his sheep how much more he knew about public education than Amanda Ripley.

      Face it, my friend. This blog has ceased to useful site for pointing out the "failures of the press corps" for a long, long time, and has turned into nothing but the rantings of an aging semi-successful baby boomer trying to show to the world how much smarter he is than the whippersnappers who make all that easy money.

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    5. Anon 518,
      You are wrong--TDH also trashes Salon. But, yeah, the gist of what you say is on the mark.

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    6. urban legend,
      I'm not sure what you think Kirkpatrick is pulling--the article seems to be sourced almost entirely from anonymous senior administration officials. I don't know how the article would read any different if it came out as a NSA press release. There is much to criticize in the NYT piece--but if a serious blogger, like a Greenwald, were considering the NYT article they would be unconvinced by the self-serving administration input and blistering the NYT for publishing pro-gov't propaganda. No serious media critic would conclude that this piece of NYT access-journalism did not sufficiently get Susan Rice's message out to the public by truncating some weasel-word boilerplate.

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    7. There is no need for Somerby to focus on events that ARE already being covered well by other media, such as the failures of CBS 60 Minutes. Why should he become a "me too" part of the echo chamber? If he started posting the same stuff as other blogs, no one would come here.

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    8. Trollmes, you are awful. Kirkpatrick went to Libya. His article was largely based on interviews with Libyans.

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    9. AC/MA,

      How did that work in Libya? Kirkpatrick just rented a car, booked his hotel and went around asking about who killed the CIA guys? I know you don't care about the entirely anonymous sourcing from the US, but don't you wonder at all about how Kirkpatrick got his on-the-record truth-tellers to be so helpful in such a dangerous contex as Benghazi?

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  5. Can we now agree that there was no "protest" of any kind?

    In all the discussions after these events several things have bothered me. Where did the report of the "protests" originate? I've never heard who was responsible for this erroneous reporting. And how did this report of non-existent demonstrations gain so much credence? "Preliminary report" or not, the Administration certainly seemed eager to place the blame for what happened in Benghazi on these imaginary protestors "spontaneously" demonstrating. As if it hadn't been for the protests over that video attracting those malcontents that just happened to be in the area and just happened to be carrying heavy weapons, we'd all be good now, eh?

    And this idea of "spontaneous" demonstrations is such a bunch of hoohah as well. Do really think it was pure coincidence that such an unknown video rose to such notoriety just in time to spark widespread protests and demonstrations on the anniversary of 9/11? I certainly hope not!

    After some Islamist sympathizer came across the video which had been uploaded to Youtube months before, translated it and distributed it to like-minded people in the Middle-East, it was recognized that it had potential to spark controversy, much like those Danish "Mohammad" cartoons did. There was a carefully orchestrated campaign to build "outrage" over the video timed to peak on 9/11. This effort ended up with an Egyptian TV station "just happening" to broadcast a show denouncing the video on Sept 8th. Coincidence? I don't think so. Spontaneous? Not at all.

    What really bothers me is that with outrage building over this video, efforts to force the release of "The Blind Sheikh" coming to a head and the anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, that NO preparations seem to have been made by either the U.S. military or the State Dept for the possibility that violence might break out. We have heard many times that no military assets were able to respond in time to the attack in Benghazi. If they're off in Italy and not even on alert, I guess not!

    But why weren't any fast-reaction forces pre-positioned close to possible hot spots and on alert on 9/11? Was this a deliberate decision? The Administration was making a big deal that bin Laden was dead, with the inference that we had nothing to fear from terrorists. Would moving forces and putting them on alert mean that we really DID have something to fear from terrorists? It just might!

    Or was the lack of preparations just pure incompetence? Was everybody oblivious to the building tensions in the area? Was significance of 9/11 being ignored? Nobody's been fired, that I know of, but that's not unusual today. No matter how badly you screw up, if you're a good team player, all is forgiven. And there certainly hasn't been any lack of good team players in this affair. I'd like to know why the military wasn't ready for an attack on 9/11, but the questions just aren't being asked.

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    1. Well, I agree with a lot of what you said, but then it all falls apart in your conclusion that the attack on the Benghazi compound could have been prevented by a build up of military resources on "hot spots".

      Now tell us exactly how much military force should have been deployed to how many "hot spots" to prevent what happened at one of them -- Benghazi?

      20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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    2. "Can we now agree that there was no "protest" of any kind?"

      You didn't read the Kirkpatrick piece, did you. Or his earlier reporting from right after the event, or the Wall Street Journal's, or any of a number of television news outfits.

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    3. You don't have to read the Kirkpatrick piece to know there was no "protest.," Susan Rice wrote a press release on Nov 27, 2012 stating that there was no protest.

      http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/201072.htm

      Apparently, the intelligence "evolved" after the election or surely she would have mentioned it before. Yet nobody in the administration has ever said what new information came to light between the election and November 27. Go figure.

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    4. Your definitive knowledge of the event seems based on the evidence provided by Mike Rodgers. Which is to say, it is based on nothing.

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