Benjamin Rhodes

Overview

  • Helped draft the final report of the 9/11 Commission
  • Helped write the Iraq Study Group report
  • Has worked as a speechwriter and policy advisor for Barack Obama

Born in 1977, Benjamin Rhodes was raised in New York City by a conservative-leaning Episcopalian father and a more liberal Jewish mother. He attended New York’s prestigious Collegiate School and then earned a B.A. from Rice University, where he majored in English and political science. In 1997 Rhodes worked briefly as an opposition researcher for the re-election campaign of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and subsequently earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University.[1] While pursuing his master’s degree, Rhodes taught writing at NYU and John Jay College.

In 2001 Rhodes worked for the campaign of a Democratic New York City Council candidate. The following year, he moved to Washington, DC to work for former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton (Democrat-Indiana). Rhodes helped Hamilton draft the final report of the 9/11 Commission, which Hamilton vice-chaired. Rhodes also assisted Hamilton and 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean in writing Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission.

When Hamilton was named co-chair of the Iraq Study Group in 2006, Rhodes helped him write that panel’s landmark report as well. Most notably, Rhodes wrote a majority of the chapter advocating direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria, a recommendation that would have considerable influence on President Barack Obama beginning in 2009. Indeed, Obama ultimately adopted most of the report’s 79 suggestions. Critics have noted that the report’s “expert list” was heavily weighted with pro-Arab apologists who directed a number of rebukes pointedly at Israel. According to the American Thinker, “Some of the experts who were interviewed were appalled by the final written report because they felt it did not reflect facts, their testimony, or reality.”

In June 2007, while still working with Hamilton, Rhodes met then-U.S. Senator Obama for the first time. Then, after working briefly as a speechwriter for former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Rhodes joined Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as a volunteer foreign-policy advisor. Soon thereafter, Rhodes was hired as a full-time senior speechwriter for Obama. From that point forward, he became one of Obama’s closest foreign-policy aides.

Rhodes played a key role in writing some of President Obama’s most significant speeches—e.g., the unveiling of America’s new strategy in Afghanistan; the outline of a plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq; a Nowruz message to Iran; and, most famously, Obama’s June 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world. The latter—largely a public-relations maneuver intended to flatter Muslims—whitewashed Islamic tradition as one of “religious tolerance and racial equality,” and erroneously attributed accomplishments such as printing, navigation, and medicine to the Islamic world.

In September 2009 Rhodes became President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. Having established himself also as a trusted policy advisor, Rhodes was given an open invitation to attend national security meetings whenever he wished.

According to Michael McFaul, who worked with Rhodes in the National Security Council and was later named the American ambassador to Russia, Rhodes “became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure” in the Obama administration. “Because of his close personal relationship with the president,” added McFaul, “Ben can always make policy through the speeches and statements made by President Obama.”

A May 2016 New York Times profile reported that Rhodes was, “according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders [whom author David Samuels] talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [President Obama] himself; that according to Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough, the president and Rhodes communicated “regularly, several times a day”; and that “part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his ‘mind meld’ with the president.” “Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes,” wrote Samuels, “used the phrase ‘mind meld’ verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, ‘I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.'”

The likemindedness between Rhodes and Obama had long been apparent to close observers. “Watching him and the president work,” deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough had said years earlier, “it’s obvious that there’s a lot of shared world view.” Obama advisor and confidante David Axelrod concurred: “He [Rhodes] really understands the president’s voice. They’ve got a great mind-meld on these issues.”

In the aforementioned New York Times profile of May 2016, Samuels discussed the large degree to which Rhodes and his colleagues in the Obama White House viewed themselves essentially as storytellers tasked with shaping public perceptions. For instance, Samuels wrote that when he had asked Rhodes’s close friend Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, “whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative,” Favreau replied, “We saw that as our entire job.” Added Samuels:

“Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”

In his interview with Samuels, Rhodes described how easy it was for him to fool most reporters into accepting and parroting the Obama adminstration’s narrative regarding its policies: “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Rhodes’s Influence in Shaping Specific Obama Administration Policies and the Public Narratives Regarding Those Policies

When massive anti-government revolutions erupted in Egypt and Libya in 2011, Rhodes helped persuade President Obama to reverse three decades of U.S. support for then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and also to lead an intervention against then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. For the Libyan campaign, Rhodes, carefully avoiding the use of the word “war,” coined the euphemism “kinetic military action.”[2]

In early 2013, Rhodes became a strong advocate for more aggressive U.S. efforts to support the Syrian opposition—which included many Islamist, al Qaeda-affiliated elements—against President Bashar al-Assad.

Also early that year, Rhodes, speaking about the ongoing Mideast conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, said: “Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace.”

In May 2013, journalist Stephen Hayes reported that Rhodes had likely been a key player behind the Obama administration’s effort to cover up the fact that a deadly September 11, 2012 attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya was a premeditated act of terrorism rather than—as the administration initially depicted it—an unplanned, spontaneous escalation of a nonviolent demonstration against an obscure anti-Islam YouTube video that had recently been produced in the United States. Hayes wrote that the “frantic process” of editing and re-editing the talking points involved senior officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the White House. And he mentioned Ben Rhodes by name, explaining that on September 14, 2012, Rhodes had advised those involved in the process that all the edits would be finalized the following morning in a White House meeting of top administration officials. ABC News confirmed that on September 14, 2012, Rhodes wrote the following to his high-level colleagues in the Obama administration:

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

On April 29, 2014, previously unreleased internal Obama administration emails—obtained by Judicial Watch via the Freedom of Information Act—confirmed that Rhodes indeed had sent emails to top White House officials such as David Plouffe and Jay Carney just a day before Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice would make her infamous appearances on five Sunday news programs, where she portrayed the attacks as spontaneous reactions to an obscure YouTube video rather than as premeditated acts of terror.

According to one of Rhodes’s emails, the “goal,” was “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.” His email also advised Rice and other administration officials to articulate that:

“[W]e’ve made our views on this video crystal clear. The United States government had nothing to do with it. We reject its message and its contents. We find it disgusting and reprehensible. But there is absolutely no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence. And we are working to make sure that people around the globe hear that message.”

Rhodes further instructed Rice and the others to say something to the effect of: “I think that people have come to trust that President Obama provides leadership that is steady and statesmanlike. There are always going to be challenges that emerge around the world, and time and again, he has shown that we can meet them.”

David Samuels’s May 2016 New York Times profile of Rhodes explains how Rhodes willingly and proudly used his storytelling skills to deceive the American public regarding the details and implications of the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had recently negotiated with Iran—an agreement allowing the terrorism-supporting regime in Tehran to inspect its own Parchin nuclear weapons research site, conduct uranium enrichment, build advanced centrifuges, buy ballistic missiles, fund terrorism, and have a near-zero breakout time to a nuclear bomb. (For additional details about the accord, click here.) Key excerpts from the Times piece include the following:

Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency….

In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.” While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration. By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.

The nerve center for the selling of the Iran deal to Congress, which took place in a concentrated three-month period between July and September of last year, was located inside the White House, and is referred to by its former denizens as “the war room.” Chad Kreikemeier, a Nebraskan who had worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, helped run the team, which included three to six people from each of several agencies, he says, which were the State Department, Treasury, the American delegation to the United Nations (i.e., Samantha Power), “at times D.O.D.” (the Department of Defense) and also the Department of Energy and the National Security Council. Rhodes “was kind of like the quarterback,” running the daily video conferences and coming up with lines of attack and parry. “He was extremely good about immediately getting to a phrase or a way of getting the message out that just made more sense,” Kreikemeier remembers. Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument….

In the spring of [2015], legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” [Rhodes] admitted, when I [reporter David Samuels] asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

When I [Samuels] suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.

Rhodes Lies About Edward Snowden, the Whistleblower Who Exposed the Massive Spying of Obama’s NSA

In his 2018 memoir,  entitled The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Rhodes inadvertently acknowledged that, for years, he had been lying about Edward Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant who in 2013 leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, when he was an employee and subcontractor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Snowden’s revelations exposed numerous global surveillance programs, many of which were administered by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance. On August 31, 2021, investigative journalist and author Glenn Greenwald published a Substack article proving, incontrovertibly, that Rhodes and the entire Obama administration had been lying when they claimed, for years, that Snowden, who had lived under asylum in Russia since 2013, likely had ties to Communist China and Russia. Following are key excerpts from Greenwald’s piece:

“Ever since Edward Snowden received asylum from Russia in 2013, Obama officials have repeatedly maligned his motives and patriotism by citing his ‘choice’ to take up residence there. It has long been clear that this narrative was a lie: Snowden, after meeting with journalists [Greenwald and others] in Hong Kong [to provide details about the NSA program], intended only to transit through Moscow and then Havana on his way to seek asylum in Latin America. He was purposely prevented from leaving Russia — trapped in the Moscow airport — by the very Obama officials who then cynically weaponized his presence there to imply he was a civil-liberties hypocrite for ‘choosing’ to live in such a repressive country or, even worse, a Kremlin agent or Russian spy.

“But now we have absolute, definitive proof that Snowden never intended to stay in Russia but was deliberately prevented from leaving by the same Obama officials who exploited the predicament which they created. The proof was supplied unintentionally in the memoir of … Ben Rhodes […] While repeatedly emphasizing how traumatic the Snowden revelations were for the Obama administrations, Rhodes boasts of the crucial role he played in preventing Snowden from leaving Russia as the NSA whistleblower was desperately attempting to do so — exactly the opposite of what people like Rhodes and Hillary Clinton were telling the public about Snowden. […]

“One chapter of Rhodes’ book is devoted to the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. Rhodes explains that … [an important signal] sent by Cuba showing its genuine desire to improve relations was their capitulation to Rhodes’ threats that they had better withdraw the permission they had [already] granted Snowden to allow him to pass through Havana once he left the Moscow airport as planned, on his way to Latin America where he intended to seek asylum.

“In other words, Rhodes — who has spent years insinuating that Snowden is a Russian spy and traitor given his ‘choice’ to flee to Russia — knew in real time that Snowden never planned to stay even one day in Russia. He had only flown to Moscow from Hong Kong with the intent to immediately fly from Moscow to Havana, and then on to either Ecuador or Bolivia to obtain asylum. […]

“The only reason Snowden is [still] in Russia [today] is because of the actions of Rhodes and his fellow Obama officials to deliberately trap him there: first by invalidating his passport so that he could not board any international flights, and then by threatening the Cuban government that any chance for normalization with the U.S. would be permanently destroyed unless they withdrew their guarantee to Snowden of safe passage through Havana, which they then did. Here’s Rhodes in his own words, boasting about what he regards as his success: […] Reportedly, [Snowden] wanted to go to Venezuela [actually Bolivia or Ecuador] , transiting through Havana. I pulled Alejandro Castro [the son of Cuban President Raul Castro] aside and said I had a message that came from President Obama. I reminded him that the Cubans had said they wanted to give Obama ‘political space’ so that he could take steps to improve relations. ‘If you take in Snowden,’ I said, ‘that political space will be gone.’ I never spoke to the Cubans about this issue again. A few days later, back in Washington, I woke up to a news report: ‘Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden got stuck in the transit zone of a Moscow airport because Havana said it would not let him fly from Russia to Cuba, a Russian newspaper reported.’ I took it as a message: The Cubans were serious about improving relations.

“Could this admission be any clearer? From the very beginning, Obama officials including Rhodes knew that Snowden had not traveled to Russia with the intention of staying there, but instead was — in Rhodes’ own words — ‘stuck in the Moscow airport’ and was ‘trying to find someone who would take him in.'”

Notwithstanding the foregoing facts, Rhodes and his fellow Obama officials spent years casting Snowden as unpatriotic and traitorous, citing his “choice” to go to Russia as evidence of their claims. Consider, for instance, what Rhodes told his fellow former Obama national security official Tommy Vietor in a February of 2017 podcast: “Cause again like, a whistleblower doesn’t conspicuously pass through China [actually Hong Kong] to Russia, you know, reporters are always saying ‘Are you telling me that you know that he was working for the Russians?’, or what have you, I’m like, I’m not, I’m telling you what I see, which is this guy went to China [actually Hong Kong] and Russia, the two most adversarial intelligence competitors to the United States; he could’ve gone to some very liberal European country that probably would’ve taken him in, or he could have faced the music here; the choice of those destinations speaks volumes.”

Rhodes’ Role in Shaping U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

On November 29, 2016, the White House announced that Rhodes and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top U.S. diplomat to Cuba, would represent the United States by attending the memorial service for the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who had died four days earlier. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters: “The president has decided not to send a presidential delegation to attend the memorial service today. Those of you who have been following this story closely over the last couple of years know that Mr. Rhodes has played a leading role in crafting the normalization policy [with Cuba] that President Obama announced about two years ago. He has been the principal interlocutor with the Cuban government from the White House in crafting this policy and implementing it successfully.”

In a December 9, 2020 appearance on the MSNBC program Deadline, Rhodes condemned President Donald Trump for claiming that fraud had affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election:

“We have to take seriously the power Donald Trump has on an enormous share of the American population…. He’s seeking to convince a significant part of the American public that this election was illegitimate and that it was stolen. Let’s be very clear; what he’s saying is insane and absurd. It’s akin to pointing to the sky and saying it’s not blue. It’s green. Yet we’ve seen because of the spread conspiracy theory because of the size of the megaphone Donald Trump has and nature of social media, people are more than willing to live inside that reality, and the Republicans are going along with it.

“From a national security perspective, how many warning signs do you need? We had a plot to kidnap and potentially kill the Governor of Michigan. We’ve had people showing up armed in front of places. We’ve had Republican officials sounding alarm, as you said. The warning signs are there. If someone gets hurt, if someone gets killed, the blood is on all of their hands, the people who are saying nothing, the people who are going along with this. This isn’t a game. This isn’t a charade. This is a deliberate effort to make a big chunk of this country live inside of a conspiracy theory that could radicalize them to commit acts of violence. And this needs to be taken seriously and shut down by responsible adults before this becomes just a part of the political backdrop of this country for the next several years.”

Rhodes Calls for Government Censorship of Conservatives

During MSNBC’s coverage of President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, Rhodes stated that if social media companies like Twitter did not intensify their regulation of speech that Democrats and the Biden administration deemed objectionable, then government would have to impose its own regulatory measures. Said Rhodes: “I think from a policy perspective … there are big questions about the future of social media in this country, whether or not someone has to step in and regulate these platforms so that it’s not left to the CEO of Twitter to make a decision to kick President Trump off a couple weeks before his term ends and after the Democrats have won back control of government. But rather, can government work with these tech companies to determine how they can at least slow the spread of this poisonous disinformation?” “All of us have a responsibility now, starting from the presidency, starting from the White House, but to those social media companies, to Facebook, and to all of us as citizens to realize, to wake up to just how close we came to losing it all,” Rhodes continued. “We need everybody to step up here and that includes social media, and if they won’t, that means that government’s going to have to step in as well.”

Rhodes on Women in the Military & “Extremism … on the Far Right”

During a March 11, 2021 appearance on MSNBC’s Deadline, Rhodes condemned Fox News host Tucker Carlson for having said the following about pregnant women serving on the frontlines in the U.S. military: “So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military. While China’s military becomes more masculine as it’s assembled the world’s largest navy, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore since men and women no longer exist. The bottom line is it’s out of control, and the Pentagon is going along with this. Again this is a mockery of the U.S. Military.” In response to Carlson’s remarks, Rhodes said:

“We’ve had hundreds of thousands of women serve since 9/11 heroically. Fox News and Tucker Carlson likes to wrap themselves in an American flag when it suits their purposes, and then runs them down when it suits their culture war purposes. The danger is, don’t bring the culture war into our military. We need cohesion in our military. We need our military fights together as one team, serving together as one team and to be provoking this at a time, by the way, that the military has acknowledged it wants to take steps to make sure the extremism we have seen in our society, particularly on the far right, doesn’t creep into the ranks. To have Tucker Carlson stirring this kind of pot, that’s both an insult to the tens of thousands of women serving, some in harm’s way, and also an effort to sow division inside the military itself. I cannot think of anything more unpatriotic than the type of garbage that Tucker Carlson is spewing on his program.”

Additional Information

Rhodes’ wife, Ann Norris, was a senior foreign-policy and defense advisor to former Senator Barbara Boxer.

Rhodes’s brother, David Rhodes, was the president of CBS News from 2011-19 and then became the head of News UK TV, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Footnotes

  1. Before turning permanently to politics, Rhodes, an aspiring fiction writer, penned an unfinished novel titled Oasis of Love, wherein, he explains, “a woman breaks the guy’s heart because she becomes a member of a megachurch.”
  2. In both Egypt and Libya, the U.S.-assisted revolutions ultimately resulted in the ascendancy of jihadist organizations and movements; in Egypt, the reins of post-Mubarak governance were taken up by Mohammed Morsi, a longtime leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

0 paragraphs