The president’s political opponents have "been caught red-handed" making up "so-called ‘scandals,’" Democrats recently told supporters in an email blast.
Congressional Republicans have stirred up "false rumors of vast ‘cover-ups’ happening in the White House" about attacks in Benghazi, Libya — and even altered the evidence, Democrats claimed.
"Republicans actually doctored emails between administration officials about Benghazi," said the message from Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "Then, they released them to the press, trying to pass them off as real in order to create their scandal."
Partisans creating counterfeit White House emails seemed like a serious charge to us. It also struck us as an exaggeration. We wanted to know: What’s the evidence for their claim that Republicans doctored the evidence?
Tale of the talking points
The emails in question trace the back-and-forth between the CIA, FBI, State Department and White House that resulted in controversial talking points used to explain the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi.
Those talking points were used most infamously by Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, on Sunday talk shows several days after the attacks. (In the resulting Republican uproar, she gave up her bid to be the next secretary of state.)
Early drafts of the CIA talking points made references to terrorist groups, saying "we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida participated in the attack." But in 12 rounds of edits of the talking points, that reference disappeared.
Instead, Rice told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sept. 16, 2012:
"I think it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself I think is one of the things we'll have to determine."
Republicans argued this was evidence the White House interfered, attempting to downplay a terrorist attack before the election.
The White House said the gap between early and late versions of the talking points could be chalked up entirely to the best assessment of the "intelligence community" — in other words, political concerns of the State Department or White House had nothing to do with it.
White House press secretary Jay Carney went so far as to claim in November that the "single adjustment" by the White House and State Department was to change the word "consulate" to "diplomatic facility."
Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte wanted to see the evidence.
In January, they asked: Why had the administration refused to provide the full text of emails that would explain the deletion of references to al-Qaida and terrorism?
Lawmakers got a peek at the messages.
But the email exchange otherwise generally stayed under wraps — until some details appeared in an April 2013 report from House Republicans, then in May articles from the Weekly Standard, ABC News and others.
They made Carney’s comments look entirely misleading: It turned out a State Department spokeswoman had raised "serious concerns" about the CIA talking points, and the White House had to play mediator — a bigger role for either of them than he had suggested.
And something else interesting emerged.
While a State Department spokeswoman had weighed in on the CIA talking points, contrary to Carney’s suggestion, the early news reports that relied on leaks had inaccurately characterized a message from the White House. ABC News, for example, used a direct quote from a White House adviser that differed from the actual email text.
The difference mattered: In the early reports, it looked like the White House was piping up in support of the State Department, which better served Republicans’ arguments that the White House was involved in a political coverup. The actual email looked like an even-handed attempt to resolve issues between the agencies.
In news reports, the message from Ben Rhodes, then a deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, included a direct mention of the State Department.
"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," ABC News reported he had written, according to CNN.
But Rhodes’ email had actually said to the group, "We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation."
He didn’t, in fact, single out the State Department.
The Democrats’ explanation: Republicans doctored the emails!
But explanations from ABC News and the author of the Weekly Standard piece, Stephen Hayes, tell a somewhat different story.
Hayes explained to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker that someone provided him with "summaries" of email messages — not altered versions of emails.
"I didn’t speak to anyone who represented the email summaries as direct quotes," Hayes told the Post.
ABC News added an editor’s note to its story that it "should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a congressional source. We regret that error." Reporter Jonathan Karl said in an update that his source took notes on a long chain of emails that included references to the State Department, so the notes reflected that.
"Summaries" and "handwritten copies of emails" are a bit different from "doctored" emails — wording that creates the impression of electronic fakery.
In other words, the leaker hasn’t been named.
Woodhouse didn’t share evidence with us — or claim to know — exactly who leaked details from the emails. Nor could he prove that the source deliberately altered his or her notes to create a false impression, then lied to reporters.
The Democratic National Committee claimed to its supporters that "Republicans actually doctored emails between administration officials about Benghazi. Then, they released them to the press, trying to pass them off as real."
But when we asked, Democrats didn’t provide evidence that discrepancies resulted from anything more than sloppy note-taking, or that journalists had been snookered into believing they had seen the original messages.
ABC News, in fact, took responsibility for imprecision in its story. Hayes of the Weekly Standard says no one tried to misrepresent summaries that were leaked to him as actual emails.
It’s certainly possible the leaker’s inaccurate notes were intended to deceive. But Democrats have failed to prove that’s the case. Their claim about doctoring evidence could use some evidence. We rate it Mostly False.