Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what.

But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl's source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS's Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).

Let me just explain quickly in case you haven't been following this, and then we'll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, "We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation." That was changed to, "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." In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, "the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?," which was changed to, "The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda's presence and activities of al-Qaeda."

So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there's a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn't a terrorist attack, because Obama's re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there's any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that's ridiculous, but it's what many conservatives seem to believe.

Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:

Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week's Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.

And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn't like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn't a conspiracy, but just one person. We don't know yet, because Karl hasn't said who his source is. That's his call to make; I'd argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source if if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.

This is one of those times when you have to ask, "What the hell were they thinking?" Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn't release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It's another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren't more conspiracies is that people aren't smart enough to put them together.

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