Senior White House and State Department officials played a much larger role than they acknowledged in drafting erroneous administration “talking points” about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, according to congressional investigators preparing for a dramatic hearing Wednesday in the House.
The House Oversight and Government Reform committee will hear from the man who took charge of the U.S. mission to Libya after the Benghazi attack left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
The Obama administration’s handling of the assault, and the way top officials first characterized the assault as a protest rather than a terrorist attack, will come under new scrutiny.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get-go,” Gregory N. Hicks told congressional investigators. “I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.”
The weekend after the attack, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made the rounds of Sunday political talk shows erroneously saying the attacks had grown out of a spontaneous demonstration against a U.S.-made anti-Islam video — even though many in the administration knew differently.
A key question for lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing will be who altered the talking points Mrs. Rice said she used in blaming the video.
An early version of the talking points noted previous warnings about the security situation in Benghazi and the involvement of al Qaeda supporters in the attack. But those were removed at a last-minute meeting in the White House the day before Mrs. Rice’s TV interviews, congressional investigators say.
In public statements, White House press secretary Jay Carney and other officials have maintained that the talking points were developed by U.S. intelligence agencies and that any changes were made at their request.
But emails obtained by committee investigators, described in a recent report by House Republicans and leaked to The Weekly Standard last weekend, suggest that top White House and State Department officials were involved.
The email traffic shows amendments that were made after two individuals — identified by The Weekly Standard as National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland — intervened.
The changes “struck any and all suggestions that the State Department had been previously warned of threats in the region, that there had been previous attacks in Benghazi by al Qaeda-linked groups … and that extremists linked to al Qaeda may have participated in the attack on the Benghazi Mission,” Republican investigators said in their report, which compiled the work of the majority staffs on five House committees.
State Department pushes back
Democrats in the House have accused Republicans of running an “investigation by press release” and say that minority staff members have been excluded from the process.
Officials at the State Department have tried to brush aside new questions about the attacks by issuing a fact sheet Tuesday evening to rebut allegations by House Republicans.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, former U.S. prosecutor Victoria Toensing, who represents Mr. Hicks, charged this week that “people have been threatened at the CIA” to prevent them from coming forward about Benghazi.