ABC News made a big splash this morning by reporting this about the CIA’s now-discredited Benghazi talking points:
ABC News has obtained 12 different versions of the talking points that show they were extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack.
ABC has helpfully posted the dozen versions of the talking points, so we can track the editing of them ourselves. Here are the main takeaways:
1) The talking points confirm that the intelligence community had determined at the time that the “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. Consulate.” The key words there are “spontaneously” and “evolved.” That assessment does not change in any of the subsequent revisions.
This confirms that the version of events the administration initially offered was, in fact, grounded in the intelligence community’s assessment at the moment (which turned out to be wrong). However, Susan Rice falsely extrapolated from the talking points during her now infamous TV appearances that the anti-Islam video was the cause of the attacks. That isn’t what the talking points say. They only say the protests were the genesis of them. The talking points don’t mention the video.
2) The talking points clarify exactly how the reference to al-Qa’ida was edited out. In the initial versions, the talking points say that “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.” That was subsequently cut down to “Islamic extremists,” and then to just “extremists.”
So it’s true that the reference to al-Qa’ida was in fact deleted. And at one point, the talking points specifically name the group Ansar al-Sharia, which was also deleted.
But ABC reports that a State Department official objected to inclusion of the specific names because “we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.” There’s no clear evidence of any other motive at this point.
What’s more, the talking points never describe the attacks as premeditated terrorism. They just say that “extremists” with ties to al-Qa’ida “participated” in the attacks.
3) The talking points do confirm that they were edited at the urging of the State Department, and a leaked email shows that this was partly out of a concern over appearances. This portion was deleted entirely:
The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. Since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.
ABC News reports that an email from State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland shows that she objected to the inclusion of that portion. She said she was “concerned,” because it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?”
So here’s where we are. The talking points were edited more extensively than the White House initially said, and with more direct involvement by the State Department. Indeed, spokesman Jay Carney, in his statement to ABC News, carefully elided this point by claiming that “the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and non-substantive.” Emphasis mine; that was not Carney’s original claim.
It’s clear also that worry over appearances was at least partly the reason for at least one of the State-driven edits.
At the same time, the talking points also show that the intelligence community had not concluded at that point that the attacks were pre-meditated terror, believed that they had “evolved” from “spontaneous” protests, and that al Qa’ida extremists had merely “participated” in them. In assessing the situation, the administration (with the exception of Rice’s false implication of the video) was, in fact, largely repeating what the intelligence community believed at the time. It may well be true that the administration was too slow in subsequent days to acknowledge that the attacks were terrorism, but there’s still no clear evidence of any nefarious motive in doing so or that it wasn’t largely taking its cues from the intelligence community’s own evolving assessment.