What if there was a crucial piece of information with potentially election-altering implications that a leading media organization sat on until the final weekend before a presidential election -- information contradicting the storyline advanced by the president and parroted ad nauseam by that very same media organization for several weeks?
Emmy Award winning journalist and former CBS News correspondent and anchor Sharyl Attkisson describes just this scenario in her new book, "Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington."
In an episode that would "irreparably destroy any confidence in and respect...I [Attkisson] might have had for those at the network who were involved," Attkisson explains that CBS News made an explicit effort to corroborate the Obama administration narrative that the president had referred to Benghazi as an "act of terror" on Sept. 12, 2012, while sitting on evidence from their own interview with the president on that date confirming that he would not refer to Benghazi as a terrorist attack.
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) debates Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) during a town hall style debate with at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates fielded questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images
Readers may recall that during the second presidential debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in October of 2012, Romney challenged Obama's claim that Obama had referred to the Benghazi attack as an "act of terror," as opposed to "a spontaneous demonstration," during the president's public statement on Sept, 12. 2012.
This was of course a crucial distinction in that a key part of the Obama re-election effort was its argument that the administration had severely weakened "extremist" elements, with Al-Qaeda "on the run" -- a notion incidentally that Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard has since noted was demonstrably false based on documents obtained in the raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, which the Obama administration allegedly covered up.
Candy Crowley, the moderator during the debate, famously interjected on behalf of the president, saying "He [Obama]--he did call it an act of terror," to a stunned Mitt Romney, who would essentially drop any line of attack on the president with respect to Benghazi prospectively.
The president did use the phrase "act of terror" in a speech in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12, 2012, but only indirectly, in context of a statement about the broader significance of Sept. 11, 2001, stating "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
On that same date however, Obama also conducted an interview with CBS' Steve Kroft, in which he explicitly would not refer to Benghazi as an "act of terror," a crucial admission that CBS officials suppressed until just before the election, instead cherry-picking a sound bite from the interview more favorable to the Obama administration narrative.
Attkisson writes that in the immediate aftermath of the second debate [in a story that you can hear in Attkisson's own words as part of our in-depth interview beginning at 21:03 below]:
The CBS Evening News wants the controversy [whether the Obama administration had tried to hide the Benghazi attacks' terrorist ties] addressed and, preferably, put to rest. The New York producers commission a story on the topic from a fellow CBS Washington correspondent.
Midday, I'm in the Washington newsroom when I overhear our senior producer relay strict instructions from New York. The instructions say that the other correspondent's story must include a specific, never-before-aired sound bite from President Obama's September 12 60 Minutes interview with Kroft...it's news to me that 60 Minutes had spoken to the president about Benghazi weeks before. New York also dictates the precise wording that the other correspondent should use to introduce the chosen Obama sound bite. It appears to be an attempt to make the president's case for him--that he had called the Benghazi attacks "terrorism."
What did the CBS Evening News report? The script reads as follows:
It had been about 14 hours since the attack, and the President said he did not believe it was due simply to mob violence. "You're right that this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt," Obama said, referring to protests sparked by an anti-Islam film. "And my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start." Shortly after that, Obama stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke of the killing of four Americans as if it were a terrorist attack. "No act of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," Obama said in his Rose Garden remarks.
Attkisson writes that her "own interpretation of the president's Rose Garden remarks isn't quite the same," directly contradicted by evidence she obtains on Oct. 24, 2012 showing email alerts issued by the State Department to the White House situation room and other agencies from Sept. 11, 2012 indicating that the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Meanwhile, in her own reporting, Attkisson is told that she must insert the same sound bite as in the Evening News segment, reporting that an executive producer at CBS tells her "It has to be used, and you have to use that same wording to introduce it: Obama 'said he did not believe it was simply due to mob violence.'"
While more damning evidence about what the Obama administration knew and when it knew it with respect to Benghazi begins to come to light, Attkisson notes that CBS begins to stop pursuing the Benghazi story on air, relegating Attkisson's reporting to the CBS News website.
Then, on the Friday afternoon before the election, Attkisson "learn[s] something that would shake any remaining faith" she had in CBS' New York-based executives.
It's Friday afternoon. A colleague calls.
"You know that interview 60 Minutes did with Obama in the Rose Garden on September twelfth?" the colleague says.
..."I just got a transcript of the entire interview."
"I can't say. But holy shi*."
"What's it say?" I ask.
The colleague proceeds to read to me from the transcript. It's undeniably clear to both of us. We instantly know that the interview that had been kept under such a tight wrap for nearly eight weeks is explosive.
The very first comment Kroft made, and the president's response proved that Romney had been correct all along:
Kroft Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya attack.
Kroft's take on the president's wording and intent was the same as mine had been and, according to the president himself, at the same time, our take was correct. All the synonyms used by Obama, Clinton, White House spokesman Carney, and Ambassador Rice were intentional. They "went out of [their] way to avoid the use of the word terrorism."
Then Kroft asked a question that offered the president the opportunity to clarify or at least hint at the behind-the-scenes conclusions already formed by nearly everyone on the inside: that the attacks were the work of terrorists. But the president balked.
Kroft Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?
Obama Well, it's too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.
[sharequote align="center"]I couldn't get past the fact that upper-level journalists..had been a party to misleading the public[/sharequote]
Kroft had asked the question point blank. Though the president has told the world that he unequivocally called it a terrorist attack that very day, and though the media has largely sided with his interpretation, his own hidden interview with CBS belied the claim.
My thoughts turn to the selectively chosen Obama sound bite...To put it mildly: it was misleading.
...Besides the implications for the story itself, I couldn't get past the fact that upper-level journalists at CBS had been a party to misleading the public. Why wouldn't they have immediately released the operative sound bite after Romney raised the issue in the debate? It would have been a great moment for CBS. The kind of break that news organizations hope for. We had our hands on original material that no other news outlet had that would shed light on an important controversy. But we hid it.
...How did the White House know CBS wouldn't use the part of the 60 Minutes Obama interview that disproved the president's debate claim?
After speaking with executives about her misgivings with respect to the "extremely unethical and dishonest" CBS reporting on this story, Attkisson writes that CBS released the story through a comprehensive Benghazi timeline put out on CBSNews.com, the Sunday night before the election.
Attkisson writes that the brother of White House staffer Ben Rhodes, CBS News president David Rhodes said of the episode:
"Look, we fuc*ed up..." "But what matters is that as soon as it was brought to my attention I took steps to correct it. And if there are [congressional] hearings, that's what I'll testify to, because it's the truth.
There were no hearings.
A few Republican members of Congress who were paying closer attention than others contacted CBS News executives with their concerns about the belated posting of the president's Benghazi interview. But by and large, the whole episode was mostly forgotten...
Attkisson claims that in the aftermath of the story, David Rhodes assured her that an investigation would be conducted and that Attkisson would be made privy to its results. She never received them.
In part due to this episode, after working at CBS for 20 years, Attkisson proceeded to leave the company in March 2014.
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