Meet the Press   |  December 29, 2013

1: The impact of new Benghazi findings

The New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick discusses his new findings about the 2012 attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro spar over the political implications of the report.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> breaking news, a bombshell report in the "new york times " could change deathe debate over the deadly attack on benghazi in 2012 , one of the hot political topics of this year.

>>> from nbc news in washington, the world's longest running television program , this is "meet the press" with david gregory .

>>> and good sunday morning. happy holidays . the "new york times " concludes there was no involvement by al qaeda in the attack that killed four americans , including u.s. ambassador christopher stephens . they also said the attack was in part fueled by anger over an american-made video critical of islam. so does this bolster the obama administration 's initial response to the attack and undermine its critic? coming up, i'll have exclusive interviews with the journalists who broke the interviews in the times and one of the republicans in congress who claimed there was indeed a cover-up. also, some of the key questions in 2014 . will obama care survive in its present form? and how much does the u.s. have influence around the globe? and how much in exile for edward snowden? first the developments in the benghazi story. joining me here in washington on our set is nbc chief news foreign affairs correspondent andrea mitchell . and from vermont, "new york times " cairo bureau chief. david , thank you for being here. it changes the narrative, it changes the report on benghazi , and let me lay out the context of what you conclude. months of investigation, you write, by the "new york times " centered on extensive interviews with libyans in benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that al qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. the attack was led instead by fighters who had benefited directly from nato's air power and logistics support during the uprising against colonel ka gaud i. and contrary to claims by some members of congress , it was fueled by islam. two key points. how do you know it wasn't al qaeda ?

>> well, i don't think i'm out on a limb there. i think honestly if you asked anybody in the u.s. intelligence business, they would tell you the same thing. i've talked to some of the people who i believe were lead perpetrators, and it's just obvious from them and the people around them, they're purely local people. their pasts are known, their records are known, when they were in prison, who they hung out with in prison, who their associations are. there is just no chance that this was an al qaeda attack if, by al qaeda , you mean the organization founded by bin laden . i've tried to understand some of the statements coming out of congress blaming al qaeda for this, and the only way they make sense to me is if you're using the term al qaeda a little differently. if you're using the term al qaeda to describe even a local group of islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the united states , if you're going to call anybody like that al qaeda , then okay. certainly there were some anti-western islamist militants involved in this attack. but to me that's a semantic difference and not a useful way of answering the original question, which is, did the group founded by osama bin laden lead this?

>> andrea mitchell , in the days after the attack on this program and others, then u.n. ambassador, who is now the president's national security adviser, susan rice , came on the program and i asked her if there was a terrorist element involved. this is what she said.

>> 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 dmon demonstrations in our facilities in cairo which were prompted by the video.

>> she says the video was a part of this, this was a spontaneous event in part by the video. that's being bolstered by this original assessment by the "new york times ."

>> if i can interrupt you, i would say, no, we're not bolstering that original assessment. in fact, she made some clear misstatements there. this was not a street protest and it was not a copycat of what happened in cairo . that was an unarmed street protest . this was a group of armed men, who inspired by a video, deliberately attacked the compound. so what she's doing there through her misstatement is actually setting up kind of a false dichotomy . either it was a spontaneous street protest or it was an armed terrorist attack . neither of those turns out to be exactly the case. it was an armed terrorist attack motivated in large part by the video.

>> but that's the point of the role of the video as opposed to an attack that was carefully planned and orchestrated.

>> i think you can parse the words. it's very clear and it was clear from the review board's report that the state department itself had commissioned. that review board led by mike mullen and ambassador pickering said there was a terrorist element here. so the question is how much were they motivated or sparked by the video, and how much was it purely terrorism, anti-u.s. and anti-western terrorism, showing how vulnerable the consulate was. in susan rice 's defense and the state department 's as well, in those first few days everybody was trying to cover up, appropriately, they thought, the fact this was a cia outpost. it was a cover for an outpost to try to disarm the very militias that ended up attacking.

>> so david , a finer point here. one thing that is not removed is the sting against this administration for inadequate security for a diplomatic outpost on the ground in post-war libya.

>> yeah, i would say in addition to inadequate security , there was a real intelligence failure here. there is a substantial cia operation tasked with trying to figure out what are the threats to american interests among these militias, and it's clear that the united states fundamentally understood the dynamics of those militias. the people who attacked the compound were members of the militias the u.s. expected to protect, the same mission.

>> david , thank you for your reporting and coming on the program this morning. i appreciate it. happy new year to you. with us republican darrell issa of california, chairman. i'll also speak to joaquin castro in texas. mr. issa , let me start with you. back in may, after the independent review came up with its conclusions about what happened, you and i had the following exchange. i'd like to play it and ask you about it now.

>> the fact is we want the facts. we're entitled to the facts. the american people were effectively lied to for a period of about a month. that's important to get right.

>> i want to be clear what you believe the lie was.

>> this was a terrorist attack from the get-go. it was never about a video.

>> have you changed your mind based on the "new york times " investigation? were you wrong about that?

>> well, the "new york times ," quite frankly , david kirkpatrick did some very good work. but interviewing people in benghazi after the fact, after the world has been told about this video, is really not realtime. we have seen no evidence that the video was widely seen in benghazi , a very isolated area, or that it was a leading cause. what we do know is that september 11 was not an accident. these are terrorist groups , some of them linked to or self-claimed as al qaeda linked, but i think david -- before i go on, i wanted to make a very good point that david put out. look, it is not about al qaeda as the only terrorist organization any more than jihad or hamas or hezbollah.

>> you said repeatedly it was al qaeda , and the reason that matters is you and other critics said the president won't acknowledge al qaeda because it's an election year and he wants to say that after bin laden , it's been decimated and would make him look bad if it were al qaeda .

>> al qaeda wasn't decimated and there is a group there involved that's linked to al qaeda . what we never said, and i didn't have security look behind the door , that's for other members of congress , of what the intelligence were on the exact correspondents with al qaeda , that sort of information. those sorts of methods i've never claimed. what i have claimed, and rightfully so, is ambassador stephens and others alerted well in advance that they had a security threat, including, of course, the two attempts to kill the ambassador, the british ambassador, the closing down of these facilities and so on, on the d the day the ambassador was killed, it was not a question of if, but when there would be an attack. so we had warning beforehand, and instead of increasing security , we reduced security . during the attack, in 8.5 hours, we didn't launch so much as one m-16. the question is what the military capability is in response there and why there wasn't greater security . and lastly, there was this clear attempt, and andrea said it very well, there was an attempt to put a bright spot, and maybe it was to cover up cia activities , but they went out on five stations and told a story that was at best a cover-up for cia , and at worst, something that cast away this idea that there was a real terrorist operation in benghazi . and by the way, there is nobody from the u.s. government in benghazi today. it is too dangerous to go there.

>> andrea , a question?

>> one point is they were denying a cia outpost in the initial days because it was too dangerous and because we don't talk about intelligence. the point of why use the term al qaeda ? because you and other members of congress are sophisticated in this and know that when you say al qaeda , people think central al qaeda . they don't think militias that may be inspired by bin laden and his other followers. so it is a hot button for political reasons from the administration 's view.

>> andrea , it was accurate. there was a group that was involved that claims an affiliation with al qaeda . now, al qaeda is not a central command in control. it was, in fact, a loose group that could take general statements and act on them. the important thing in our investigation, in the oversight committee investigation, where people have said under oath repeatedly they were not given the security they asked for in advance, they can't understand why there were not clear attempts to help them during those 8 and a half hours --

>> these are separate issues, chairman. the key question is, do you stand by that the administration lied about who was behind it and what initially happened given this reporting?

>> i think david kirkpatrick very clearly says the statements made were false and misleading. he says that in his report. i don't have to state anything. i'll stand, quite frankly , behind what david kirkpatrick said.

>> with the amount of information they had at the time, isn't there a distinction between fog of war and an attempt to deceive?

>> gregory hicks hearing the last words of stephens to the outside world was told, we're under attack. and under oath when asked, if the ambassador had seen a protest or anything else earlier, would he have reported it, he said of course, yes. the fact is people from this administration , career professionals, have said under oath there was no evidence of any kind of a reaction to a video and, in fact, this was a planned attack that came quickly. that's the evidence we have by people who work for the u.s. government and were under oath.

>> and again, the reporting today indicating that there was no evidence to be found of direct al qaeda link, this was clearly an attack like people on the ground felt it was.

>> david kirkpatrick doesn't have the classified information that mike rogers and others have, and neither do i.

>> classified information can also be based on incomplete information . it's realtime. if intelligence were always right, we wouldn't have a lot of the oversight in this country we have. reports are often wrong, are they not?

>> what we know, david , is initial reports did not name this video as a prime cause . there was a small piece of information in a cable, they seized on it along with a lot of other information and chose to use that as a talking point. andrea , i think you hit it right on the head. if there were always about trying to deflect the fact that there was another large facility, fine, but the administration should honestly say that. we've already had director clapper say he lied before the congress.

>> didn't the administration 's own independent review board come to the conclusion that the security failures you cited from gregory hicks and other witnesses were accurate? and it was a slamming report.

>> it was a slamming report. my concern with that report is it doesn't go high enough, it doesn't go to undersecretary kennedy and others who had direct responsibility. but having said that, yes, they made it clear they should have had security they didn't have. mullen, when asked, if they had had a fast team like yemen had or like libya has today, would there have been an attack, and in his opinion, with those kinds of forces behind the walls , there wouldn't have been an attack.

>> before i let you know, i quickly want to touch on obamacare, which is a big area of concern for you, especially the oversight committee. your colleague ron johnson told the times this on friday. it's no longer just a piece of paper you can repeal and it goes away. there is something there. we have to recognize that reality. we have to deal with the people that are currently covered under obamacare. some 400,000 in your state of california have signed up and enrolled in obamacare. will obamacare survive, whether you like it or not?

>> obamacare is a reality. unfortunately, it's a failed program that is taking a less than perfect health care system from the standpoint of cost and making it worse. so the damage that obamacare has already done and will do on january 1st , 2nd and 3rd will have to be dealt with as part of any reform. some of these things the administration talks about as good are, in fact, large expansions in medicaid, the fact that people well into the middle class are going to get subsidies is going to cause them to look at health care differently. health care sort of in a third world way of do we get subsidies from the government for our milk, our gasoline and, oh, by the way, for our health care ? so as americans , we're going to have to ask the question of have we done anything to drive down the cost of health care ? the answer is obviously no, we're going up. are we making it more affordable with government subsidies ? yes, but are government subsidies the answer or do we really need to look at the cost drivers of health care to get effective health care delivered at an affordable price which was the stated go of the affordable care act .

>> congressman, thank you very much. would have loved even more time on health care , but we're out of time this morning. hopefully you'll come back and andrea mitchell as well. joaquin castro , let me bring you in on this. give us your opinion on the aftermath of benghazi and the report this morning. does it change the debate?

>> well, it certainly does, david , and i hope that chairman issa and others have learned a lesson from this. chairman issa and members of that committee crusaded for over a year on what was really a fairy tale claiming that the administration knew that al qaeda was involved and wouldn't admit it. and the fact is when a tragedy like this happens, whether it's something like this or a mass shooting on the a school, there is a lot of information that comes out at the beginning that later has to be verified. but the important thing is that susan rice and the administration were trying their best to level with the american people , and some of the information that came out early, although it may have been wrong, that was their best effort . darrell issa and others took that and crusaded against the administration in a way that i think has been a big distraction for the american people .

>> let me ask you about health care . the news this morning is that there have been 1.1 million americans that have enrolled via healthcare.gov, a surge we have seen in the last days and weeks. back in september, the secretary of health and human services , kathleen sebelius , said this was the standard of success.

>> what does success look like? well, i think success looks like at least 7 million people having signed up by the end of march 2014 .

>> so we're about 1.1 million now, certainly far short of that standard of that goal. if you don't reach it, what are the implications?

>> well, obviously, we're going to try as hard as we can to reach it. the affordable care act is something that's good for the country. it really is a new day for the american people . they can't be denied now because of preexisting conditions. they won't hit lifetime caps, and we have been a little bit behind the curve. but on christmas eve and the day just before that, there were about a million people either on the website or made a phone call to enroll, and so we've seen the numbers spike up incredibly since november 1st .

>> do you believe that the individual mandate will have to be delayed? is that something worth considering?

>> no, at this point i think that we should continue with the law. you know, the administration , of course, has made some adjustments, but david , there is not a single big law like this that america has passed, probably in our history, where there haven't had to have been changes made to it to tweak it to make it better. so some of those delays you see the administration making are really in the best interest of the american people and made with the intent of serving the american people and getting people health care in a better way.

>> the fight coming up in the new year will be over the economy and jobless benefits that are set to expire for americans who are out of work. what are the economic ramifications of letting those benefits expire?

>> well, obviously, you've got about 4.1 million long-term unemployed in this nation. in texas alone, we've got 66,000 people who as of yesterday lost their benefits. 235,000 people in all who will lose their benefits through midway in 2014 . so it's not only the benefits which, by the way, only average about $300 a month. so it's not only the benefits to them but also all of that economic development for the country, for retailers, for grocers, et cetera , so it's going to have a huge impact on our country if congress doesn't do something about it.

>> thank you very much for your time. happy new year.

>> happy new year. thank you.

>>> we're back here in one minute with one of edward snowden's lead attorneys. are more surprises in store for 2014 ? plus, this holiday season , praying for billy graham .

>> he felt god did this to put him in that place so he could be a spiritual counselor and adviser, and every one of the presidents always, at some point in that relationship, would talk to my father about spiritual things.

>> my colleague harry smith with a special look at a man who has been a spiritual leader to millions for more than half a century.

>>> plus, our roundtable is back with its analysis and insights about the u.s. and its position in the world. what are the biggest threats to the u.