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.
The CIA countered that charge Tuesday, saying it had no evidence of anyone being silenced.
"The CIA does not tolerate reprisal against agency personnel who wish to speak with Congress," agency spokesman Todd D. Ebitz said. "CIA employees are of course free to speak to Congress if they want to, and indeed there is an established process to facilitate such communication on a confidential basis.
"We are not aware of any employee who has experienced [reprisals] or who has otherwise been prevented from communicating a concern to Congress," Mr. Ebitz said.
Ms. Toensing declined to comment on the record Tuesday about the CIA's denial.
Questions over Benghazi appeared to have faded in recent months after Mr. Obama won confirmation of new defense and state secretaries and a new CIA chief.
But House Republicans have continued to press what they say are unanswered questions about the attack.
The House investigators' interim report published last month absolved the Defense Department and intelligence community of blame in the run-up to the assault and in the aftermath. Instead, the report blamed the White House for failing to ensure that the military was prepared to respond, and said former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bears personal responsibility for ignoring security warnings.
Democrats slammed the report as partisan, countering that the accusations against Mrs. Clinton were flimsy. They said a State Department-chartered investigation had pinpointed where security decisions were made, which was below Mrs. Clinton's level.
But with the revelations about the involvement of White House officials in the drafting process, attention is turning once again to the talking points, and to the story the administration told about the attack in the midst of a hard-fought election campaign — in which one of its key narratives was the defeat of al Qaeda.
Anonymous U.S. intelligence officials last year told news media outlets that details of the affiliations of those taking part in the attacks had been removed from the talking points in part because the indications of the role they played came from highly classified signals intelligence — cutting-edge electronic surveillance tools being deployed in Benghazi.
But according to the House report, "there were no concerns about protecting classified information in the email traffic" about revising the talking points, which was all sent on unclassified networks.
Embarrassing the U.S.
Removing all references to al Qaeda from the talking points and sending Mrs. Rice on TV to blame the attack on the video embarrassed the United States, Mr. Hicks said.
Mrs. Rice was directly confronted on CBS' "Face the Nation" five days after the attacks with videotape of the president of the Libyan National Congress, Mohamad Yusef al-Magariaf.
Mr. al-Magariaf called the attacks "pre-planned."
"Based on the best information we have to date," Mrs. Rice responded, the attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction" to protests against the video.
"We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or pre-planned," she said.
Mr. Hicks said that when he heard that, "My jaw hit the floor. ... I've never been as embarrassed in my life, in my career, as on that day.
"The spokesperson of the most powerful country in the world has basically said that the president of Libya is either a liar or doesn't know what he is talking about," he said. "[Mr. al-Magariaf] has just lost face in front of not only his own people, but the world."
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
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