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Get caught up on Benghazi, in five short paragraphs

An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Eight months after militants stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the political controversy is still raging. Congressional Republicans are still holding investigative hearings, and Gallup found that 69 percent of Americans agree (including 52 who strongly agree) that "the issues being raised in the Benghazi hearings involve serious matters that need to be investigated."

Initially, there were three Benghazi controversies: what happened before the attack (why didn't the State Department have better security?), what happened during the attack (was there a quick-reaction force that could have intervened?) and what happened after. That last part is now getting most of the attention: The Benghazi controversy, at present, is over what the talking points said about Benghazi, why they said that and who wrote them.

Talking points, to be clear about this, are a list of officially approved statements, circulated within the government so that everyone who might discuss a particular issue publicly are all on the same page. It's kind of a cheat-sheet summary of what the U.S. government knows and thinks about an issue — in this case, the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi.

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza summarized the current state of play in a recent podcast:

The thing that Republicans have really focused on is why did [then-ambassador to the United Nations] Susan Rice go on Sunday talk shows and argue that the attack was precipitated by spontaneous demonstrations that were inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and why didn't she immediately point out that this was a pre-planned attack by affiliates of al-Qaeda. And so there was a lot of investigative energy up on the Hill in [Rep.] Darrel Issa's [investigative] committee to get to the bottom of how those talking points were created.  The White House eventually shared with the Hill, with Issa’s committee [the House Intelligence committee], the email traffic.
They'd shared with them previously, they allowed Issa and his staff to look at them. But not to copy them. And then, not surprisingly, in the last few weeks there's been a lot of misinformation about what was in these emails. To just sort of settle the whole thing, the White House [on Wednesday] released all of these emails. I read them last night and the story the emails tell is basically a bureaucratic turf battle between State and CIA that is being negotiated by folks at the White House, at the National Security Council.
The whole purpose of these talking points, they were giving them to the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, a Democrat named Dutch Ruppersberger. That's what the whole point of the talking points was. Then State weighed in and said, "Hey, CIA, you're putting in information that we are not prepared to share publicly, so you shouldn't do that." The CIA came back and said, "OK fine," and in the end you had some fairly detailed talking points that had some unverified information that got watered down to say basically nothing.
The allegation, the reason that this all got investigated to death, was that the Obama administration was covering up and did not want to reveal that they knew this was a terrorist attack from the beginning. To me, the most important thing in the emails is that the first line of the talking points, the line that never changes through all the iterations, this line was originally from the CIA and it says, "The currently available information suggests that the demonstration in Benghazi was spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo." So, the White House didn't invent that, the CIA had that from the beginning. So, to me, the release of these emails essentially ends this chapter of the Benghazi story.
I don't think [Issa] is finished investigating the probably more important question of why were calls for increased security in Benghazi not heeded before the attacks. That's still a pretty important question. So I don't think it's the end of Benghazi.

Correction: This post originally quoted Lizza as stating that the White House had shared the Benghazi talking point e-mails with the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Issa. While Lizza said this, the e-mails were in fact shared with members of the intelligence committee.