“We had some new members on the committee, and we knew the press would be very aggressive on this, so we didn’t want any of them to make mistakes,” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) said last week of his request in an account supported by Republican participants. “We didn’t want to jeopardize sources and methods, and we didn’t want to tip off the bad guys. That’s all.”
What Petraeus decided to do with that request is the pivotal moment in the controversy over the administration’s Benghazi talking points. It was from his initial input that all else flowed, resulting in 48 hours of intensive editing that congressional Republicans cite as evidence of a White House coverup.
A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency.
The information Petraeus ordered up when he returned to his Langley office that morning included far more than the minimalist version that Ruppersberger had requested. It included early classified intelligence assessments of who might be responsible for the attack and an account of prior CIA warnings — information that put Petraeus at odds with the State Department, the FBI and senior officials within his own agency.
The only government entity that did not object to the detailed talking points produced with Petraeus’s input was the White House, which played the role of mediator in the bureaucratic fight that at various points included the CIA’s top lawyer and the agency’s deputy director expressing opposition to what the director wanted.
“What [committee members] were looking for was the lowest common denominator,” said a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the editing process. “That’s not what the agency originally produced.”
Petraeus did not respond to e-mailed requests to clarify questions surrounding his role in drafting and reviewing the talking points. He resigned as CIA director in November after details of an extramarital affair became public.
At 9:42 p.m. Sept. 11, 2012, as violent anti-American demonstrations unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa over an anti-Islam video made in the United States, a group of armed men attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.