Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hillary Clinton, those emails, and the truth

In the dust up around the leaked emails and among the events of her busy day, Hillary Clinton made the following remarks regarding the emails and the attack on the Benghazi consulate in a press availability today.

Now finally, on Benghazi, look, I’ve said it and I’ll say it one more time. No one wants to find out what happened more than I do. We are holding ourselves accountable to the American people, because not only they, but our brave diplomats and development experts serving in dangerous places around the world, deserve no less. The independent Accountability Review Board is already hard at work looking at everything – not cherry-picking one story here or one document there – but looking at everything, which I highly recommend as the appropriate approach to something as complex as an attack like this.
Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence, and I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be. What I keep in mind is that four brave Americans were killed, and we will find out what happened, we will take whatever measures are necessary to fix anything that needs to be fixed, and we will bring those to justice who committed these murders. And I think that that is what we have said, that is what we are doing, and I’m very confident that we will achieve those goals.
This was in partial response to a complex series of questions from CNN's Elise Labott.

Later in the day, at the daily press briefing,  AP's Matthew Lee further pursued the story of the emails.  In response, Victoria Nuland shed a great deal of light on the nature of those emails.  What kind of emails they were and from where provides perspective on their significance and much needed context. Here is the exchange.

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Wednesday, everyone. The Secretary did all they work this morning, so we can handle this with dispatch, I hope. I have nothing at the top.
QUESTION: She did all of the work this morning?
MS. NULAND: She did a lot of the work, yeah.
QUESTION: Well, let’s just start with something that she did say, which was about these emails that have been – that are being reported on now. Do you have anything to add to what she said about them? And can you explain – these were emails sent by this building to various other agencies, including the White House. Do you know, was it people in this building who noticed the claim of responsibility on Facebook and Twitter, or was it people in Tripoli or somewhere else?
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, in terms of where this piece fits into the general effort to gather information before, during, and after the events in Benghazi, I think the Secretary’s spoken to that, Jay Carney’s spoken to that. The reason you have an ARB is so that you can look at all of the information that we had, not only unclassified information and information --
QUESTION: Fair enough, but I --
MS. NULAND: -- that appeared on Facebook.
QUESTION: But considering these things are now out there, can you --
MS. NULAND: So just to give some context, as you know, our Operations Center is responsible for providing fast-breaking news to principals in this Department. We obviously share with other national security agencies. So on the unclassified side, they will collect information that they are seeing in real time, whether it’s from Facebook, Twitter, press reporting, all of your fine work, that kind of thing, and make sure that people see it if it’s a breaking story. So what --
QUESTION: Sorry. So it was the Ops Center specifically that noticed this claim of responsibility?
MS. NULAND: I think the --
QUESTION: Or was it the Crisis – the Rapid Response Team or – I’m just looking for – or was it someone out in the field?
MS. NULAND: That particular piece was disseminated --
QUESTION: I know where it was disseminated from.
MS. NULAND: -- by our Operations Center. Whether it was --
QUESTION: Where did they get it from?
MS. NULAND: Whether they saw it themselves or whether it was highlighted by our people in the field, I can’t speak to that. I, frankly, don’t know. It can happen any of a number of ways.
QUESTION: In instances such as this, is it standard practice to relay all claims of responsibility sort of no matter --
QUESTION: -- where they come from, who they might be?
QUESTION: So I mean, it could be somebody waving a flag in the air and saying, “I’m responsible,” and that would also be reported?
QUESTION: So there’s no sort of value judgment on the reliability of the claim implied by having it relayed through this system that you have?
MS. NULAND: And in fact, there are instances where the Ops Center might send out messages that three different groups are claiming responsibility for the same event. But it’s standard practice for them, when we have breaking news, for them to inform all of the principals in this building so that everybody knows what’s moving.
QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But I mean, if a claim is ludicrously unbelievable – I don’t know, I mean, like if someone forged the Quaker Church or something and said that they were – that would be passed on as well?
MS. NULAND: Well, they obviously use their judgment as to whether they think it’s important for principals in this building to be aware of what’s out there, particularly what’s out there in the public domain.
QUESTION: Okay. So it was deemed important enough – and I’m going to assume that important enough means that it was presumably credible to pass on to other – to pass on to the principals in other agencies, correct?
MS. NULAND: Again --
QUESTION: I’m just – I mean, if I had said that I take responsibility for this, would that have gone up the chain?
MS. NULAND: They definitely would not have passed on your personal claim of responsibility, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. Fine. So – because it wouldn’t have been credible. Now maybe – I mean, it wouldn’t – what I’m getting at is that if it wasn’t a claim that had the possibility of credibility, it wouldn’t have been passed on, correct?
MS. NULAND: What I’d like to say here is that in keeping folks informed, the Ops Center obviously is looking at the totality of what’s out there in the public domain. When things begin to become picked up, when they become something that people are talking about, they obviously have a responsibility to inform principals. But it is not the job of the Operations Center in passing these things on to analyze them, to weight them in any way, shape, or form. They’re just --
QUESTION: Well, but in fact, they are weighting – had there been a hundred claims of responsibility that night and 99 of them had been from a group or a person that couldn’t possibly have done it, they wouldn’t have passed those on, correct?
MS. NULAND: In all likelihood, if there had been a hundred claims of responsibility that night, they would have done a summary which said more than a hundred groups, including Matt Lee, have claimed responsibility for this attack, is what they would have reported.
QUESTION: And then said that --
MS. NULAND: And not evaluated them one way or the other.
QUESTION: Really? So they would have given my alleged claim of responsibility equal weight with that of a known terrorist group in Libya?
MS. NULAND: Again, Matt, you’re – we’re getting into crazy land here. My point is simply that if the environment is saturated with claims of responsibility, they’re going to make sure that principals know that we’ve got competing claims. That’s my only point here.
QUESTION: And again, just while we’re on this sort of procedure, while we’re in crazy land – (laughter) – what’s the --
QUESTION: Who’s the ambassador here?
QUESTION: Exactly. That’s what I was wondering. (Laughter.)
The objective – I realize that they go to all the principals, but is it then that the analysis comes from the intel community?
MS. NULAND: Correct.
QUESTION: And so they’re really the ones who are charged with assessing the reliability or the plausibility of any of these claims in that case? But the principals are kept informed just so that they know what’s out there, or what --
MS. NULAND: For example – let me just give you an example. My BlackBerry, on any given day, will have between 6 and 60 alerts from the Ops Center about what you all are writing, about what other things are moving in the press from around the world, about unclassified information that we’re receiving from our embassies, about things of interest that might be moving in the public domain around the world. These are to keep people informed of what’s out there in public. They are not designed to be intelligence products. They’re not designed to be finished analysis. They are simply to keep folks informed, particularly on the unclassified side.
QUESTION: One more on this. And I don’t know if this is in crazy land or not, but do you – it’s on they specifics of this email in question. Do you have any reason to believe that it could actually have just been wrong, that there was not a Facebook posting at all, or --
MS. NULAND: Again --
QUESTION: Does that happen? I mean --
MS. NULAND: Does it – I mean, it --
QUESTION: That occasionally these emails come around when there’s a developing situation and they’re not accurate?
MS. NULAND: Again, these are designed to keep people informed of what’s moving. I didn’t actually look at it to see whether it was a press report about a Facebook posting or whether it was the Operations Center itself saying that there was a Facebook posting, so I can’t evaluate one way or the other. But --
QUESTION: It was the Embassy in Tripoli.
MS. NULAND: Is that – was that what it says? Anyway, I’d have to look at it. But again, they report what they get. So if they reported Embassy in Tripoli says, then it is based on something that Embassy in Tripoli said. Whether that can be right or that can be wrong is something to be evaluated later.
QUESTION: Why didn’t you have the tape?
MS. NULAND: Again, back to the sort of overall question of what was happening that night, who is responsible, what do we learn from it, all of these things are being looked at by the Accountability Review Board. They are not simply looking at classified, they are looking at unclassified as well. So as the Secretary said today, this piece has to be put into the larger mosaic.
QUESTION: That’s actually my second question. Are you concerned at this point that the integrity of this ARB investigation is being slaughtered by a climate of all these leaks of emails and – it seems like every couple of days, there’s potentially classified or unclassified, recently unclassified information that’s getting leaked to the media. Is that jeopardizing the integrity of this ARB?
MS. NULAND: Well with due respect to the Fourth Estate and all of you, the ARB’s job is to sit back away from the press swirl, the public swirl, the political swirl, and try to look at what actually happened before, during, and after; what we knew, when we knew it, and what lessons we can draw from it. So they are responsible for standing back from all of this news environment, et cetera.
QUESTION: So you don’t think that people are pushing these things out to smear the – for political reasons? That’s what I’m asking.
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously I’m not --
QUESTION: I’m trying to ask it in a way that doesn’t immediately get into politics, because I know you don’t like to talk about politics.
MS. NULAND: I sure don’t like to talk about politics, and I’m not going to get into the motivations of various folks here. But you can think about the way the ARB operates much as you think about a sequestered jury, if you will. They are separated from the larger process and they look at everything that we knew at the time and during and after, and they are – their process is designed to have integrity in and of itself without reference to the current climate now.
So! While everyone is bouncing off the walls, pointing fingers, and playing the blame game, the truth about the emails is that they were a product of a quotidian process to alert officials of stories that are circulating with no evaluation made at that point regarding the validity of the story.  The story itself goes out as is unvalidated. 

Now if everyone would just settle down and let the ARB do its work we might actually get to the truth of the matter.