PR Case Studies

The Obama Administration and the Benghazi Attack Communication Crisis

Case Study developed by Arielle Hixson, Emily Karsnak, Cynthia Overton, and Claudia Teixeira under the direction of Professor Fran Bernhards. Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations / Corporate Communication. Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.

Executive Summary

On Sept. 11, 2012, the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya suffered a violent attack that led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Following the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on several Sunday morning political talk shows, drawing on CIA-produced talking points that emphasized the spontaneous, mob-like nature of the attack. Within a month, Rice’s talking points proved incorrect, igniting a series of public relations missteps and pitfalls. White House communication to the public regarding the Benghazi attack was laden with conflicting reports, spotty trickles of information sharing, and a particularly hostile audience in the form of congressional Republicans seeking to prove an election-year cover-up or administrative incompetence in dealing with national security. Ultimately, the administration’s response to media inquiries and Republican attacks led to Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for Secretary of State and embroiled the administration in a controversy that has yet to be resolved.

Keywords: Benghazi attack, Susan Rice, Obama Administration, crisis communication.

Situation: The Benghazi Attack

At 10:00 p.m. on Sept.11, 2012, unknown attackers opened fire using heavy artillery on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. By 10:15 p.m., assailants gained entry to the complex and engulfed the main building in flames. Although many of those inside escaped, U.S. Ambassador Stevens, State Department Computer Expert Sean Smith, and a regional security guard remained in the building. The security guard managed to escape and returned shortly with others to rescue Stevens and Smith. They found Smith dead and pulled him from the building, but were unable to locate Ambassador Stevens. Eventually, thick black smoke, fire and gunfire drove them from the building. At 10:45 p.m., security attempted to retake the main building, but was not successful until a second attempt at 11:20 p.m. By 11:30 p.m., all surviving U.S. personnel evacuated the consulate, and it was confirmed that Stevens and Smith were killed in the assault. At 5:15 a.m. on Sept. 12, attackers launched an assault on a second U.S. facility in Benghazi. The attack killed two former U.S. Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were acting as security contractors. At 7:17 p.m., American consulate personnel, along with the bodies of Stevens, Smith, Woods and Doherty, exited Tripoli en route to the United States (BBC News, 2012.)

Research and Planning

The administration’s communications approach was likely based upon intelligence gathered during and after the attack by defense and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and State Department. However, research eventually proved to be insufficient, as a definitive statement about the cause of the attack did not surface until almost two weeks following the attack. See Appendix A for the hour-by-hour timeline of events released by the Pentagon.

It appears as though the administration took a one-way asymmetric model approach to communicating the Benghazi crisis with a focus on disseminating information without volunteering negative information or seeking input. Objectives appeared to be:

  1. Communicate the facts of the attack
  2. Establish that the administration made sound foreign policy decisions
  3. Assure the American people that the administration has taken appropriate action and will deliver swift justice

The administration’s communication strategy was to convey that the attacks were spontaneous, and therefore, beyond the administration’s control. The White House also attempted to communicate that officials were investigating the attacks, while reassuring the public that those responsible would be put to justice. The Obama Administration targeted communication outreach to the general American public. White House messaging emphasized that the administration took appropriate action in Benghazi, both leading-up to and following the attack, and that it continues to cooperate with congressional Republicans to provide classified information to satisfy republican demands for additional insight. 

Execution: White House Public Communications After the Attack

Table 1
Timeline and Inconsistencies in the Messaging Surrounding the Benghazi Attack

Uncertain Messaging

Date

Certain Messaging

Benghazi attack occurs

Sept. 12

Obama delivers Rose Garden speech

Sept. 13

Carney denies reports of planned attack

Sept. 14

Sept. 14

Morell suspects organized attack

Rice appears on Sunday talk shows

Sept. 15

State Dept. & president restate no evidence of planned attack

Sept. 17/18

Sept. 24

Clinton confirms planned attack

Obama will not confirm planned attack on  “The View”

Sept. 24

Sept. 27

Panetta confirms planned attack

Oct. 9

 State Dept. reveals no protest occurred prior to attack

 

Nov. 14

Senators McCain and Graham announce opposition to Rice for Secretary of State

 

Nov. 15

McCain holds press conference

 

Nov. 27

Rice meets with GOP

 

Dec. 13

Rice withdraws name from consideration

Phase 1:  Getting Its Story Straight

White House communication surrounding the Benghazi attack began with President Obama’s rose garden speech on Sept.12, 2012. He fell short of calling the incident a “terrorist attack,” but alluded to this with the statement, “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.” (Kelly, 2012) Later that day, the president was asked if terrorists were behind the attack during a “60 Minutes” interview, and he replied, “It’s too early for us to make that judgment.” (Transcript, 2012) This response conflicted with Libyan officials, who claimed on the BBC that the attack was executed by militant group Ansar al-Sharia (Banerji, 2012).

On Sept. 14 Press Secretary Jay Carney denied reports that the attack was preplanned, although later that day, Carney was informed by Pentagon officials that it was, in fact, a planned terrorist attack. Carney maintained in the briefing that the matter was being investigated, but White House officials “don’t have and did not have concrete evidence to suggest that this was not in reaction to the film.” (Brady, 2012)

Then CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell spoke with the CIA station chief in Tripoli on Sept. 15, 2012, expressing concern that the agency’s reporting was off the mark. The station chief indicated that there was no protest ongoing at the time of the attack, and he did not believe the attack was spontaneous.

Nevertheless, just one day later, on Sept.16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on morning talk shows, including “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “This Week,” “Fox News Sunday,” and “State of the Union,” stating that the attack began spontaneously and that the government did not have evidence to indicate that it was a planned terrorist attack. Rice, who was rumored at the time to be a possible nominee for secretary of state, had been a fierce critic of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi prior to his death. In 2011, she advocated for his voluntary resignation and supporting the U.N. Security Council for unanimously passing a resolution to freeze Libyan government assets and military aid to the country (Youngman, 2011).

Although Rice offered no conclusive statements about the attack, she suggested that the intelligence community suspected that the attack in Benghazi was not a planned terrorist attack. As stated in the transcripts of the “Meet the Press” program (Sept.16, 2012), she stated:

First of all, there’s an FBI investigation, which is ongoing.  And we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video. What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are readily available in post revolutionary Libya. And it escalated into a much more violent episode. Obviously, that’s our best judgment now. We’ll await the results of the investigation. And the president has been very clear; we’ll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.

On the following days, Sept.17 and 18, the State Department spokeswoman and the President both reinforced claims that there was no evidence of a planned attack (Kiely, 2012). It was not until Sept. 21 that the administration suggested that the event was not spontaneous when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it a “terrorist attack” in remarks with Pakistani foreign minister. Despite Clinton’s admission, when asked if Benghazi was a terrorist attack on the talk show “The View” on Sept. 24, President Obama replies that they are still doing an investigation.

It was not until Sept. 27 that the federal government begins to deliver a consistent message that Benghazi was, in fact, a terrorist attack. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reported that Benghazi was a “terrorist attack” (DOD, 2012) and Carney told reporters, “The President’s position [is] that this was a terrorist attack.” (Kiely, 2012) On Oct. 9, the State Department revealed that there was no protest prior to the attack, contradicting the Obama Administration, and on Oct. 10, Carney refuted that the administration provided information based on the facts that we knew as they became available.

Phase 2:  Facing the Consequences of Unclear Communication

During the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney accused President Obama of being slow to respond and the administration took 14 days to call the attack an act of terror. Both the moderator, Candy Crowley, and President Obama aggressively refuted the accusation, pointing to the Rose Garden speech.

On Oct. 24, government emails that were discovered revealed that the White House and the State Department were told even as the attack was going on that Ansar al-Sharia, a little-known militant group, had claimed credit for it.

In light of the miscommunication, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain announced on Nov. 14 that they would oppose Rice’s nomination to replace Secretary Clinton. Lindsay claimed, “Either Rice didn’t know the truth about Benghazi – so shouldn’t have been on TV – or she was spinning it.” (Aronsen, 2012) The following day, on Nov. 15, McCain held a press conference about the Benghazi attack and Rice’s involvement in the aftermath. McCain would later be criticized for holding the press conference concurrent with a closed briefing with intelligence officials who shared more information on the Benghazi attack.

Rice met with GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the attack about the U.S. consulate in Libya on Nov. 27. However, her responses did not appease critics. Shortly after, on Dec. 4, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA, not the White House, watered-down Rice’s talking points to remove reference to Al Qaeda.

On Dec. 13, Susan Rice decided to withdraw her name from consideration for secretary of state. In her letter, she expressed concern that if nominated, a confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly.” (Susan Rice’s letter of withdrawal, 2012) She remains U.N. ambassador for the United States.

Evaluation

Based on information conveyed on the Benghazi attack, it appears as though the White House had no coordinated communication plan to execute. There should have been a constant flow of trustworthy information delivered by only a few key spokespersons, preferably leaders. Instead, the information was mishandled and there was great speculation regarding the cause of the attack.

Although President Obama’s remarks the day following the incident were cautious, it appeared as though the CIA had a theory that the attack was a planned terrorist attack, which conflicted with the talking points it provided Rice. Further, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy publically stated his theory that the attack was planned before Rice spoke on the Sunday morning talk shows. With so many different sources of information, it appears as though the White House did not take active steps to control the message on the incident.

No conclusive evidence was available when early messages were released on the Benghazi attack. Nevertheless, the White House did not coordinate messaging. The following list summarizes conflicting information:

  • Rice’s CIA-produced talking points indicated that the Benghazi attack appeared to be a spontaneous incident in response to an anti-Muslim video with the disclaimer that the CIA would need to wait for results of an investigation.
  • CIA intelligence reports indicated that the attack may have been a planned terrorist attack. This may have been speculation at the time, but no more speculation than the movie theory. This information was not released at the same time that Rice gave remarks, but reflects what the CIA speculated at the same time.
  • Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy expressed a suspicion that the attacks were planned before Rice delivered remarks on the Sunday morning talk shows.
  • Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif interviews on the same day that Rice appeared on Sunday morning talk shows, stating that the attack was planned.

As a result of this mishandling of information the credibility of the Obama Administration was damaged and Susan Rice had to withdraw her name for consideration for Secretary of State. She bore the brunt of the hit against the Obama Administration as representatives of the Republican Party fiercely attacked her credibility. Susan Rice is a highly accomplished professional but suffered for not having a cushion of goodwill due to her blunt temperament and failure to proactively develop a trustworthy public image. (Ioffe, 2012)

Later, on Jan. 23, 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Benghazi consulate attack and her meeting was much more favorable. She took responsibility for the attack and the talk was focused on actions. She listed a variety of actions that were taken, showing deep analysis of the situation, planning and implementation in various fronts. She showed empathy for those who were directly affected by the attack and shared emotional memories remembering the fallen colleagues and their families. Secretary Clinton fought aggressively to defend comments made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Even though she did not satisfy some Republicans, she swayed public opinion more favorably toward the administration.

Recommendations

According to Center, Jackson, Smith, and Stanberry (2008), crisis management is not about managing external influences – it is about managing response. The Benghazi attack was a crisis that affected the perceptions of security of the American people. Physical safety is a fundamental human need and individuals are prone to panic when national security seems tenuous. In such a crisis, it is important to keep the public well informed of transpiring events and actions being taken to resolve the issue (Center et al., 2008). Believable, reliable information is critical for the public to feel reassured of their overall well-being.

In reviewing the Obama Administration’s reaction to the Benghazi attack, it is regrettable that the White House did not anticipate the event and avoid the crisis entirely. U.S. embassies and consulates in areas of conflict are predictable targets and should always be adequately protected. The Obama Administration received sufficient intelligence of raised hostile activity, and with adequate troops and resources in the region, it should have been able to provide assistance. While these oversights may reflect an error in administrative judgment, it nevertheless constitutes the first error at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.

As the attack was not prevented, the administration should have devised a proper crisis communication plan to address public concerns. In times of crisis, as stated in Center et al. (2008), it is crucial to have a crisis communication plan to guarantee the flow of trustworthy information to internal and external public. Employees have to be trained to know what to do, and a few spokespersons must be chosen to communicate to the public and media during the crisis. The whole administration must have only one voice, a requirement that the White House failed to achieve. Within a short period following the attack, top officials, including Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, and Press Secretary Jay Carney, shared varying messages and reports regarding the attack. While one must recognize the difficulty and limitations for the White House to influence other governmental departments – particularly when such departments are designed to have a certain measure of autonomy – these officials were close enough to the White House that it should have been able to form a unified front. The White House and its spokespersons should have implemented and better executed a plan for unveiling newfound intelligence simultaneously, ensuring that all officials used the same terminology in referencing the attack.

While it may have been impossible for the White House to select only one spokesperson to speak on the attack since many top officials frequently appear daily before the media, the administration would have been well-advised to select a spokesperson with a firmly established position within the administration. Susan Rice’s possible nomination for secretary of state put Rice in a position of added scrutiny with raised stakes for both parties. Political posturing regularly occurs for appointment confirmations, and with new, shaky intelligence in hand, the administration should have foreseen this political liability for Rice’s nomination.

Finally, throughout the Benghazi crisis, the White House’s communication was largely reactionary, as officials were unable to get in front of Republican attacks. Republicans publicly and loudly demanded more information from the White House, which in turn, never seemed to keep pace. The White House, with its daily press briefings and preeminence with the media, should have regulated a steady stream of information to the public as it became available—including reports on its concerted efforts to work with Congress. When dealing with a hostile audience, the White House should have launched a public campaign to win the support of the electorate, which can most effectively influence the behavior of members of Congress.

References

Aronsen, Gavin (2012 November 15, 2012). Timeline: How the Benghazi controversy unfolded. Motherjones Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/11/benghazi-timeline-obama

BBC News (2012 November 16, 2012). Benghazi US consulate attack: timeline. BBC News Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19587068

BBC News (2012 November 12, 2012). Did Ansar al-Sharia carry out Libya attack? BBC News Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19575753

Benghazi Attack Timeline Shows Military Response to Libya (2012 November 12, 2012). Politico Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83713.html

Brady, James S. (2012). Press briefing by press secretary Jay Carney, 9/14/2012. Whitehouse.gov. Retrieved from http://consulate.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/14/press-briefing-press-secretary-jay-carney-9142012

Center, A., Jackson, P., Smith, S., & Stansberry, F. (2008). Public Relation Practices: Managerial Case Studies and Problems. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

DOD News Briefing with Secretary Panetta and Gen. Dempsey from the Pentagon (2012, September 27). Defense Online.  Retrieved from http://consulate.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5125

Dougherty, Jill, & Mount, Mike (2013 January 23, 2013). Pentagon releases official timeline of Benghazi attack. CNN Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.cnn.com/2012/11/09/world/africa/libya-benghazi-timeline

Ioffe, Julia (2012 December 20, 2012). Susan Rice isn’t going quietly. New Republic Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/111353/susan-rice-isnt-going-quietly

Kelly, Timothy (2012). Full transcript of Obama’s Rose Garden speech after Sept. 11 Benghazi attack. Forex TV Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.forextv.com/forex-news-story/full-transcript-of-obama-s-rose-garden-speech-after-sept-11-benghazi-attack

Kiely, Eugene (2012 November 6, 2012). Benghazi timeline: the long road from “spontaneous protest” to premeditated terrorist attack. Factcheck Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.factcheck.org/2012/10/benghazi-timeline/

September 16: Benjamin Netanyahu, Susan Rice, Keith Ellison, Peter King, Bob Woodward, Jeffrey Goldberg, Andrea Mitchell (2012, September 16). NBC News Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.nbcnews.com/id/49051097/ns/meet_the_press-transcripts/t/september-benjamin-netanyahu-susan-rice-keith-ellison-peter-king-bob-woodward-jeffrey-goldberg-andrea-mitchell/#

Susan Rice’s pulls out from secretary of state nomination – full letter of withdrawal (2012 December 13, 2012). Guardian Online. Retrieved from http://consulate.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2012/dec/13/susan-rice-full-resignation-letter

Transcript of Obama on ’60 Minutes’ (2012, September 24). Fox News Online.  Retrieved from http://consulate.foxnews.com/politics/2012/09/24/transcript-obama-on-60-minutes/

Youngman, Sam (2011 February 28, 2011). UN ambassador: Gadhafi ‘delusional’. The Hill Online. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/146541-un-ambassador-gadhafi-delusional

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