Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton played no direct role in shaping the Obama administration’s infamous “talking points” on the Benghazi attacks, the State Department’s former head of communications told lawmakers Thursday.
“At no point,” said former department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “did I talk about the talking points with Secretary Clinton.”
The assertion, made during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on President Obama’s nomination of Mrs. Nuland to become assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, appeared to baffle committee Republicans seeking to pin blame on Mrs. Clinton for the administration’s response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
While Mrs. Nuland otherwise seemed likely to cruise to confirmation to the key diplomatic post, inquiries into the role she played in shaping the administration’s unwillingness to characterize the attacks as a premeditated act of terrorism were woven throughout Thursday’s hearing.
Several Republican senators, including Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and potential 2016 presidential hopeful Marco Rubio of Florida, raised questions about a series of emails Mrs. Nuland wrote three days after the attacks in which she claimed her “building leadership” had “issues” with talking points about Benghazi that the administration was drafting.
An initial version of the talking points had made references to al Qaeda and to “at least five other attacks” on foreign interests that had occurred in Benghazi prior to attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But, following Mrs. Nuland’s input, those references were removed from a final version the White House gave to former U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice for dissemination on several news talk shows.
Mrs. Rice, who since has been named Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, made no mention of al Qaeda or terrorists on the talk shows, and instead said the Benghazi attacks had grown out of a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.
Republicans have for months insinuated that the talking points were watered down as part of a White House strategy to downplay the possibility that a U.S. ambassador was killed on Mr. Obama’s watch in a terrorist attack. The strategy’s goal, the argument goes, was to protect Mr. Obama’s national security record in the midst of hotly contested presidential campaign — and his achievement of having overseen the discovery and killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
As a result, Republicans claim the talking points were cleansed by senior officials.
“It is pretty remarkable how sanitized they really were,” Mr. Johnson told Mrs. Nuland during Thursday’s hearing. “And I know you had some participation there.”
He then asked her pointedly to specify who she meant when she wrote an email claiming her “building leadership” did not agree with a more detailed version of the talking points that had initially floated among officials at the White House, the CIA and the State Department.
Mrs. Nuland responded initially by asserting she was acting in a communications — not a policy — role when she sent the email. She also stressed that, at the time, the talking points represented what “the CIA was proposing to give to members of the House Intelligence Committee to use,” and that they were “not for a member of the administration to use.”
“I never edited these talking points,” Mrs. Nuland said. “I never made changes. I simply said that I thought that policy people needed to look at them.”
“With regard to building leadership,” she said, “I was concerned that all of my bosses at the policy level … needed to look at these to see if they agreed with me that they were potentially inaccurate.”
“And who would those bosses be?” pressed Mr. Johnson. “What about names? I mean, who were those individuals?”
Mrs. Nuland revealed that the “only person” she consulted with on the night the talking points were crafted was “Jake Sullivan,” whom, she said, was serving “at the time” as “the deputy chief of staff for policy.”
Recent months saw Mr. Sullivan promoted to the position of national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, whose office noted in a February press release, that he previously was “Director of Policy Planning and a Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
Later in Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Rubio pressed for clarification on why Mrs. Nuland would have claimed State Department leadership had concerns about the talking points if Mrs. Clinton had not actually been consulted on them.
“So,” he asked, “these were concerns based on the instructions you had received from your leadership, but not concerns that they specifically told you to have?”
“Correct,” Mrs. Nuland said. “At no point was I ever told to object to anything.”
The “talking points” exchanges comprised only a small portion of Thursday’s hearing, during which senators also weighed Mr. Obama’s nominations of Douglas E. Lute to become the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, and Daniel B. Baer to become the U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.