President Barack Obama was asked about the metastasizing Benghazi scandal in a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. Referring to the Americans who died in Benghazi, the president said, "We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus." He added that "the whole issue of talking points, throughout this process, frankly, has been a sideshow. ... There's no 'there' there."
He's half right. The talking points drafted by the State Department, the CIA and the White House and given to congressional Republicans and, most famously, to UN Ambassador Susan Rice are not the center of this story.
I think there was a lot of mischief behind those talking points, which we now know were sanitized, folded, spindled and mutilated to fit a political agenda.
But it's worth remembering that Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't get their information from the talking points. They got their information earlier and from much higher authorities, like then-CIA director David Petraeus. The CIA believed the attacks were terrorist-driven early on. According to ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl, when Petraeus finally saw the talking points, he thought they were useless.
More central are the talking points -- written or unwritten -- that Obama and Clinton used for weeks after the attacks. The president said Monday that he immediately referred to the Benghazi attacks as "terrorism." This is at best a brutal bending of the truth (that even The Washington Post's fact checker gave his worst rating -- "four Pinocchios"). He used the word "terror" generically in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12. And then, for the next two weeks, Obama went on a media blitz blaming a video, including in an interview recorded that day with "60 Minutes." In a segment that "60 Minutes" helpfully sat on for almost two months, Obama told Steve Kroft that "it's too early to know" whether the attack was terrorism. He then went on "The View," Univision and David Letterman pushing the idea that it was all about a video. At the United Nations, he condemned a "crude and disgusting" video but didn't mention terrorism.
Clinton followed suit. She told grieving family members of the fallen that the United States would track down the makers of the video. And, so far, the only person connected with the whole incident who has been punished is the filmmaker, who continues to languish in jail, admittedly on unrelated charges (though it is unlikely he'd have been swiftly picked up were it not for the administration's rush to denounce him).
If you assume they knew the truth about the nature of the attack, how are those statements not proof of a cover-up? The talking points are a sideshow.
But in a very serious way, so is the cover-up.
As Washington Examiner columnist Byron York notes, the Republican obsession with the smoking gun stems from the fact that "they are captive to the Washington mindset that the cover-up is always worse than the crime."
This Washington cliche isn't an iron law of the universe. The media like it, I think, because the cover-up invariably involves them. When the story is about how the media have been misled, the media can always be counted on to perk up, as we saw last Friday when White House press secretary Jay Carney was eaten alive on C-SPAN.
But the true core of this story has nothing to do with media vanity or talking points -- or a political circus. The real issue is that for reasons yet to be determined -- politics? ideology? incompetence? all three? -- the administration was unprepared for an attack on Sept. 11, of all dates. When the attack came, they essentially did nothing as our own people were begging for help -- other than to tell those begging to help that they must "stand down."
Again, there's an arsenal worth of smoking guns, from uncontested sworn testimony at the Benghazi hearings to the State Department's flawed internal review to the four dead Americans, including a U.S. ambassador sent to Benghazi on Clinton's orders. That's the "there" there -- regardless of what happened with the talking points. There is, from what we know so far, at best circumstantial evidence pointing to why they pushed this video story so hard. Though, as Thoreau once said, "some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.