Since the assault that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Republicans have accused President Obama and his senior advisers of mischaracterizing the attack, largely to prevent political repercussions during what was then a close reelection campaign.
Much of the Republican concern has focused on whether administration officials acknowledged early enough that an Islamist terrorist organization was behind the attack, rather than groups of protesters participating in anti-American demonstrations that were taking place outside many U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the e-mails and initial CIA-drafted talking points, the agency believed the attack included a mix of Islamist extremists from Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and angry demonstrators.
White House officials did not challenge that analysis, the e-mails show, nor did they object to its inclusion in the public talking points.
But CIA deputy director Michael Morell later removed the reference to Ansar al-Sharia because the assessment was still classified and because FBI officials believed that making the information public could compromise their investigation, said senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal debate.
Those officials said Wednesday that the e-mails capture a fairly routine conversation between agencies over how to talk about a major event.
What was most challenging in this case, senior administration officials said, was doing so within days of the attack as intelligence agencies working in a volatile environment were trying to piece together what happened.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence requested the talking points during a Sept. 14 briefing with David H. Petraeus, who was then director of the CIA. The request set off the e-mail discussion over how much information could be revealed by members of Congress in the days ahead — and by administration officials.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who did not directly participate in the e-mail exchanges, appeared on a series of Sunday shows two days after the Petraeus briefing.
The talking points she delivered emerged from the e-mail discussion, and they eventually helped cost her the nomination for secretary of state amid Republican criticism that she intentionally misrepresented the attack.
White House officials have argued that Rice was using talking points that reflected the administration consensus at that time, and the e-mails appear to support that contention.
The talking points, which were edited a dozen times between Sept. 14 and 15, did not reach Rice, whose office made several pleas for them to be sent as quickly as possible, until after 3 p.m. the day before she appeared on the shows.
The e-mails — some several pages long, with replies to previous lengthy exchanges among officials — also reveal that the main source of the debate between the CIA and the State Department was whether previous CIA warnings of attacks in the Benghazi area should be included in those initial public statements.
The two agencies had the most at stake in the Benghazi aftermath. The attacks targeted a State Department post and a CIA site where a U.S. effort to disarm Libyan militias in the area was centered. Virtually no Americans were in the diplomatic post — only the CIA facility, where the agency was responsible for security.
Senior administration officials said Wednesday that Morell, who took the lead in editing the talking points drafted initially by the Office of Legislative Affairs, agreed with State Department resistance to including the agency’s warnings about possible violence related to anti-American demonstrations.
Senior administration officials said Morell removed the references after hearing about the State Department concerns — though his concerns don’t appear in any of the e-mails.
Victoria Nuland, then the State Department spokeswoman, wrote on the evening of Sept. 14 that the warnings “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat the State Department . . . so why do we want to feed that either?”
She also raised concern about naming the terrorist organization that CIA officials believed was involved in the attack. “Why do we want [the] Hill to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren’t doing that ourselves until we have investigation results,” she wrote.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that the only indication the CIA had at that point that Ansar al-Sharia was involved was a single piece of intelligence, whose existence it did not want to reveal lest its sources and methods be compromised.
Petraeus, Morell’s boss at the time, was not included in the exchanges, which were among lower-ranking agency officials. Once he received the final version on the afternoon of Sept. 15, Petraeus complained that they did not include the warnings, which would have made the CIA look as if it had anticipated an attack.
“I spoke to the Director earlier about State’s deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this,” Morell wrote to an official in the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and Office of Legislative Affairs in the early afternoon of Sept. 15, referring to Petraeus. “But you will want to reemphasize in your note to” Petraeus.
About two hours later, Petraeus responded to an e-mail from the Office of Legislative Affairs that outlined the final talking points.
“Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this,” Petraeus wrote. “NSS’s call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get for [unclassified] use.”
In the e-mail, Petraeus is using the acronym for the National Security Council staff, which operates out of the White House, and is referring to Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House intelligence committee.
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