Under growing pressure, the White House on Wednesday released emails that showed the talking points crafted to explain the deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi last year were changed at the behest of a State Department worried about political fallout.
The 100-page cache of email printouts shows that during the editing process references to the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies believed al Qaeda-linked extremists may have been involved in the attack were removed, as were references that the CIA had received general warnings about the worsening security situation in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.
The talking points were originally drafted by the CIA, but the references to terrorist groups and the security situation were stripped after “deep concerns” were raised by the “leadership” at the State Department, the emails show.
It wasn’t only the State Department, though. The emails show that several changes were made at the behest of White House officials, including John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time who is now director of the CIA. That contradicts repeated statements by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, died in the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September. The administration at first said the attack was tied to protests over an anti-Islamic video, but eventually acknowledged there was no protest.
Congressional Republicans argue that the administration, in the midst of hotly contested presidential campaign, downplayed the terrorist angle for political reasons — and critics have focused on the talking points as evidence of that.
They said the emails confirm Republicans’ earlier findings.
“The House interim report found that ‘senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi and that those changes were ultimately made. Those findings are confirmed by the emails released today, and they contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
He said the release was “long overdue” but left out some documents that Republicans are hoping to make public.
The White House previously said it had shown the emails to members of Congress and didn’t need to release them to the public, but relented Wednesday at 5 p.m. — in the middle of news about two other burgeoning scandals involving the IRS targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny and the Justice Department seeking telephone records from The Associated Press.
The FBI’s role
The emails also may lend credence to the administration’s assertion that the principle reason for the removal of the statement identifying some of the attackers as linked to al Qaeda was concern that it might impinge on the FBI’s criminal investigation.
Early in the process of developing the talking points Sept. 14, three days after the attacks, the CIA’s top attorney warned that, because of the ongoing FBI investigation, the agency had been instructed not to make assessments about who was behind the attack, even for internal consumption.
“Folks, I know there is a hurry to get this out,” CIA General Counsel Stephen W. Preston wrote in an email, but he cautioned care was required to “ascertain whether providing it conflicts with express instructions from NSS/DOJ/FBI that, in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this etc. — even internally, let alone for public release.”
“NSS” is a reference to the White House National Security Staff, and DOJ to the Department of Justice.
The attorneys recommended removing the reference to al Qaeda and putting in boilerplate language about the investigation being ongoing.
In a first set of revisions that day, officials made minor changes but left initial references to “at least five other attacks” on foreign interests in Benghazi before the targeting of U.S. facilities that killed Stevens.
Responding to the initial changes — and apparently to the failure to remove the reference to the previous attacks — State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland then sent an email to CIA and other officials asserting that the changes were insufficient and “don’t resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership.”
A later, scrubbed version of the talking points given by White House officials to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice for dissemination on several television news talk shows on Sept. 16 — five days after the attacks — made no reference to the previous attacks or to al Qaeda.
Following the State Department pressure, the scrubbed version appears to have been devised by administration officials attending a “deputies meeting” overseen by Ben Rhodes, White House security adviser for strategic communications.
After the changes, a note apparently written by CIA Director David H. Petraeus expresses distaste for the final version.
“Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this then,” states the email attributed to a sender identified as “DAVIDDHP74.” The email, written on Sept. 15, mentions the talking points’ failure to reference a “cable to Cairo.”
The final talking points that Mrs. Rice used read as follows:
• The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
• This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.
• The investigation is ongoing, and the U.S. government is working with Libyan authorities to bring justice those responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens.
Another hearing set
House Republicans plan to hold a hearing to explore the State Department’s internal review of the Benghazi attack, and want to call the veteran diplomat who headed the State Department-chartered accountability review board.
That man, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, said he would testify in public session to Congress — but will not submit to a transcribed interview with committee investigators, as House Republicans have requested.
His decision sets the stage for another showdown over the Obama administration’s response to the assault.
In a letter released by the State Department Tuesday evening, Mr. Pickering told House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, that he and the board’s vice chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “would welcome the opportunity to testify publicly before the committee and to answer any questions you might have.”
In his reply, Mr. Issa requested that both men submit to a transcribed interview with committee staff prior to public testimony. Mr. Issa said Mr. Pickering had assured him over the weekend that Mr. Pickering would voluntarily submit to such an interview.
Mr. Pickering’s letter does not mention the request for a transcribed interview.
“We have agreed to appear at open public hearings,” Mr. Pickering said when asked whether the two men would submit to transcribed interviews. “So that’s our answer.”