Facing a fusillade of questions on the Obama administration's handling of the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, last year, White House spokesman Jay Carney continued to assert that intelligence officials, not the White House or the State Department, scrubbed the official talking points about the assault.
Even though Mr. Carney acknowledged an "inter-agency" and "iterative" editing process, he continued to say the White House was responsible for changing only one word in the talking points — a change from the word "consulate" to "diplomatic post" for accuracy purposes.
"The only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the CIA was they changed from referring to the facility that was attack in Benghazi from consulate, to diplomatic post … but the point being it was a matter of unsubstantive factual correction," he said Friday During a lengthy press conference mainly focusing on Benghazi.
"There was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this an is always appropriate," he added.
Mr. Carney also said there "was [an editing] process where there was an effort underway — an inter-agency process" and when pressed later called it an "iterative process" where "the various issues were discussed about what could be or should be said publicly, what we know, what we're just speculating about, and that process involved a whole bunch of agencies."
The increased scrutiny stems from an ABC News report that reveals the official talking points about the Sept. 11 attack were substantively edited 12 times to strike references to al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist-affiliated group, and the White House and the State Department were involved in the editing process.
On several occasions, Mr. Carney previously said the intelligence community alone crafted the talking points, which erroneously characterized the attacks as springing out of a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Islamic video. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice used those talking points when she went on the Sunday morning news shows to discuss the Benghazi attack.
Critics say the administration was reluctant to say the assault on the U.S. post in Benghazi, which killed four people including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, was a planned terrorist attack and point to the talking points' emphasis on the video as its motivation without any mention of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups as proof.
Administration officials, including Mr. Carney, say intelligence officials remained unsure of the identity and affiliations of the attackers in the days after the attack but did refer to them as "extremists." He has noted that Ansar Al-Sharia had taken credit for it on Twitter but then later recanted.
"I think the overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we're not giving to those who speak in public about these issues information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible… ," he said.
Gregory N. Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Libya at the time of the attacks and a self-described whistle-blower, testified before Congress Wednesday that he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack, was told that night that the attackers belonged to the group Ansar al-Sharia and that he conveyed that information to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the early morning of Sept. 12.
Mrs. Clinton waited until September 20 to say the violence was a planned terrorist attack. Even then, Mr. Obama declined opportunities to call it a terrorist attack when asked at a town hall meeting on Sept. 20 and during a taping of "The View" on Sept. 24.
In the middle of trying to deflect questions about the role of the White House and the State Department in editing the talking points, Mr. Carney also took a jab at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, blaming him for starting the politicization of the Benghazi attacks.
"There is the discussion about, you know, the Republicans again, and this ongoing effort that began hours after the attacks, when Mitt Romney put out a press release to try to take political advantage out of these deaths, or out of the attack in Benghazi, and, in a move that was maligned even by members of his own party," he said. "And from that day forward, there has been this effort to politicize it."
Just moments later, reporters asked Mr. Carney if the administration was playing politics with the Benghazi attacks by making changes to the talking points to avoid questions from members of Congress.
One email from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, revealed in the ABC News report, says the State Department "building leadership" were concerned about mentioning previous threats to the diplomatic post in the talking points because members of Congress might use them to question why the State Department wasn't more prepared for the attacks.
"When you said that Republicans were being political about it, is it not also political to say we want to keep something out of the talking points because we might be criticized by members of Congress? Is that not political motivation now?" the reporter asked.
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