In the aftermath of a bruising partisan battle over what the Obama administration knew about an extremist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and when it knew it, officials are rationing their words for a new crisis in Algeria.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney condemned “in the strongest terms a terrorist attack” on a remote gas field in Algeria, where the Algerian government said militants took dozens of foreign hostages yesterday, reportedly in retaliation for a French military operation against armed extremists in neighboring Mali.
Beyond saying that “the best information we have at this time” is that Americans are among those taken hostage, Carney wouldn’t elaborate on what more the U.S. government knows, or even when the White House learned about an Algerian government operation today to rescue the hostages. The State Department and Defense Department were equally reticent in their briefings today.
Carney admitted to journalists that he didn’t want to say something that could come back to bite him or the administration. “This is a fluid situation. I wouldn’t want to say something that turned out not to be true, so I’ll leave it at that,” Carney said.
He joked with one reporter that she knew hat he was talking about, prompting knowing laughter in the press room.
No one in Washington has forgotten the bitter partisan aftermath of the Benghazi tragedy. Although President Barack Obama referred to the attack as “an act of terror” twice in the two days after the attack, other administration officials – including Carney – said the U.S. had no evidence it was a pre-planned attack.
It was talking points based on preliminary intelligence — which turned out to be incorrect — that sank the chances of Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a trusted advisor of President Barack Obama, to be nominated for secretary of state. At the behest of the White House, Rice appeared on Sunday television talk shows several days after the Benghazi killings, and described the attack as appearing to have started with protests over an offensive YouTube video.
Benghazi wasn’t the first time the administration briefed the media on initial reports that turned out to be incorrect. In May 2011, Carney was forced to revise the administration’s account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
John Brennan, Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser and his choice to be the next head of the CIA, initially told reporters that the al-Qaeda chief was armed, and that his wife had rushed at a Navy SEAL and tried to shield him from bullets. When setting the record straight, Carney said at the time: “What is true” is that “we provided a great deal of information with great haste.”
In refraining from saying too much about an evolving crisis this time, the administration seems to be taking the lessons of the messaging missteps after Abbottabad and Benghazi to heart.