The Cable

Star Benghazi 'Witness' May Not Have Been an Actual Witness

A new 60 Minutes report on the attack on U.S. officials in Benghazi has reignited GOP outrage over the Obama administration's handling of the September 2012 incident. But new information about the report's central witness and his desire to profit off his story raises doubts about the accuracy of his scathing narrative. 

On Sunday, a British security guard operating under the pseudonym Morgan Jones told 60 Minutes about his death-defying account of the night extremists killed four Americans in Benghazi. His account included sharp criticisms of officials responsible for U.S. diplomatic security in Benghazi and earned wide praise from Republicans in Congress.

"The 60 Minutes piece detailed the people on the ground saw this attack coming. Has anybody been fired for letting the consulate become a death trap?" asked Senator Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican then announced a hold on the confirmation of all White House nominees, including Jeh Johnson as homeland security chief and Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chief, until the administration allows Benghazi witnesses to appear in front of Congress. "I'm not going to let this whole chapter close without having talked to the people in Benghazi who went through this living hell and pushed the administration to reconcile how their story about Benghazi was so different than the 60 Minutes report," Graham told CNN.

But with great impact comes great scrutiny, which has led to more questions about Jones's role in the incident. What's beyond dispute is that Jones worked for the Britain-based contractor Blue Mountain, which was hired by the State Department to oversee perimeter security at the compound. On Thursday, the Washington Post obtained Jones' written account of the Sept. 11 attack that he gave to his bosses a few days after the incident. In contrast with the 60 Minutes account, which saw him knocking out terrorists with the butt end of his rifle and scaling a 12-foot wall the night of the attack, the Blue Mountain report has Jones at his beach-side villa for the majority of the night. Despite an attempt to make it to the compound, Jones wrote that "we could not get anywhere near ... as roadblocks had been set up."

According to the newspaper, "[Jones] wrote that he visited the still-smoking compound the next day to view and photograph the destruction."

There are also other red flags the Post story doesn't include. For weeks, it seems, Jones tried to profit off his brush with disaster. In a Fox News report on Monday, reporter Adam Housley said his source relationship with Jones ended after he insisted upon receiving money. "He spoke to me on the phone a number of times and then we stopped speaking to him when he asked for money," Housley said. On Fox News, that fact is introduced as an incidental footnote to the network's follow up on the 60 Minutes story. It has become more relevant in light of The Post's report. (Paying sources for information is typically frowned upon in American journalism.)

Jones has other ways of cashing in as well. This week, his book titled The Embassy House was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is a part of CBS Corporation, which owns 60 Minutes -- a fact not disclosed in the 60 Minutes story. His book is also going to make it on the silver screen. In October, Thunder Road acquired The Embassy House for a feature on the Benghazi attack produced by Basil Iwanyk and executive produced by Taylor Sheridan.

At press time, a representative at Threshold Editions in charge of publicity for The Embassy House did not respond to a request for comment. 60 Minutes has said "We stand firmly by the story we broadcast last Sunday."

When asked if Senator Graham's hold on all White House nominees was still in effect in light of the criticisms of Jones's account, Graham's spokesman said "no change."

It's certainly possible that Jones's account on 60 Minutes is the accurate portrayal of his activities the night of the attack as opposed to the account given to his employer. However, if that's not the case, there certainly will be a number of journalists, Hollywood executives, publishers and politicians with egg on their face.

On Monday, when asked about Graham's threat to block all Obama nominees, White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed the maneuver as political in nature. "We obviously believe very strongly that the Senate needs to move expeditiously to consider and confirm the many qualified presidential nominees whose nominations are pending," he said. "When it comes to oversight and Benghazi, as you know, the administration has made extraordinary efforts to work with seven different congressional committees investigating what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks. That includes testifying at 13 congressional hearings, participating in 40 staff briefings, and providing over 25,000 pages of documents."

The Cable

The NSA and the State Dept. Go to War ... With Each Other

New revelations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren't simply straining Washington's relationship with Berlin. They're also sparking an increasingly public fight between the State Department and the NSA, with the nation's spies and the nation's diplomats trading shots about who's responsible for the mess.

"This is a pretty serious embarrassment for the U.S., and as top officials try to protect their agencies and their reputations, they are not sticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. official told The Cable.

Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried out without the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.

"The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," Kerry told a conference in London. "In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, responded by putting responsibility for the spying efforts squarely on the State Department itself. He said diplomats around the world were asking for information about the "leadership intentions" of top foreign officials, and that his agency was simply trying to respond to those intelligence requests.

Alexander, according to a report in The Guardian, was responding to a series of sharp-edged questions from James Carew Rosapepe, a former American ambassador to Romania. Rosapepe had asked the general to explain how U.S. national security interests justified the NSA's spying efforts on "democratically elected leaders and private businesses."

"That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don't come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements," Alexander said. "One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors."

This isn't the first time that the Obama administration has seen high-level disagreements play out in public, of course. In December 2009, President Obama announced plans to send tens of thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan but stressed that they were being sent to carry out a narrow counter-terrorism mission targeting al-Qaeda terrorists, not a broader counter-insurgency mission. Within days, top military officials began to publicly and privately say they were going to undertake a counter-insurgency approach anyway.

The increasingly-heated NSA debate is different, however, because it risks doing long-term damage to key White House relationships with foreign leaders like Merkel as well as long-term damage to the relationship between the administration and the spies it entrusts with protecting the nation from new terror attacks.

Foreign Policy reported earlier this month that senior NSA officials, including Alexander, were angry at the White House for failing to do more to defend the spy agency from criticism of its surveillance efforts on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals. The administration, meanwhile, has seemed blind-sided by the continuing revelations about secret NSA spying programs at home and abroad.

The White House had two basic choices for how to respond: argue that Obama knew about the programs and approved them, which risked further infuriating key American allies, or say that he was unaware of the NSA's efforts, which risked painting a picture of a surprisingly out-of-touch commander in chief. For the moment, the administration seems to have settled on the latter.

P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman, said the administration has had a hard time settling on a PR strategy because it doesn't know how many more disclosures are yet to come, or precisely what will be in them.

"There's a drip, drip, drip that makes categorical statements in response to the latest news report risky," he told The Cable. "At what point do you have a sense that you know what you're dealing with so you can start to repair and rebuild? From a diplomatic standpoint, you can only start those repairs when the shovel stops digging a deeper hole."

Crowley helped craft the State Department's response to the initial WikiLeaks disclosures, but said that was relatively easy compared to the ongoing disclosures of once-classified NSA documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"During WikiLeaks we had months to assess the damage and see what was in the archive," he said. "For the moment, with Snowden, it's hard to know if we're closer to the end or the beginning."

Mark Wilson/Getty