New details from administration e-mails about last year’s attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrate that an intense bureaucratic clash took place between the State Department and the CIA over which agency would get to tell the story of how the tragedy unfolded.
That clash played out in the development of administration talking points that have been at the center of the controversy over the handling of the incident, according to the e-mails that came to light Friday.
Over the five days between the attacks and the now-infamous Sunday show appearance by U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, senior officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department argued over how much information to disclose about the assault in which four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.
That internal debate and the changes it produced in the Obama administration’s immediate account of the attack have revived Benghazi as a political issue in Washington six months after the presidential election in which it played a prominent role. Friday’s revelations — ABC News published 12 versions of the talking points — produced the latest round of Benghazi post-mortems in the eight months since the attacks. Senior administration officials said in a briefing for reporters that none of Obama’s political advisers were involved in discussions around the original talking points, only national security staff officials.
According to various drafts of the talking points, shaped before the final editing by the White House and other agencies, State Department officials raised concerns that the CIA-drafted version could be used by members of Congress to criticize diplomatic security preparedness in Benghazi.
One U.S. intelligence official familiar with the talking points’ drafting said: “The changes don’t reflect a turf battle. They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation.”
One version of the talking points, drafted by the CIA, noted that unknown gunmen had carried out at least five recent attacks in and around Benghazi against “foreign interests.” The final version, however, did not include those warnings after Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s chief spokeswoman at the time, protested in e-mails to White House national security staff and other agencies involved in editing the talking points.
CIA officials said in the weeks after the Benghazi attack that Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, was not mentioned in the final talking points because the information was classified — even though the early versions made public this week showed that the agency initially intended to name the group.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused the White House of downplaying the attackers’ links to Ansar al-Sharia for political reasons given Obama’s campaign argument that he had severely weakened the terrorist group.
Reports about the e-mails surfaced two days after three State Department officials appeared before Congress on Wednesday and criticized administration actions before, during and after the September assaults.
The most memorable testimony came from Gregory B. Hicks, who was deputy ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time of the attack. Hicks and the others questioned why the Benghazi facility had not been made more secure before the attack and why the Pentagon did not send air or ground support once the attack began. Hicks also testified that he was criticized for raising the questions and was effectively demoted as a result — allegations that the State Department denied.
On Thursday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called on the White House to make public e-mails and other information about the talking points that are among tens of thousands of pages of documents the administration turned over to lawmakers months ago. White House officials continue to assert that they have provided all the information congressional leaders have asked for.
White House officials have said previously they made only one change to the CIA-drafted talking points, changing U.S. “consulate” to “diplomatic post” in the final version.
But White House officials were directly involved in developing the talking points through discussions with the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, the Justice Department, and elements of the Pentagon.
Behind the scenes, as a then-close presidential campaign entered its final stretch, State Department officials found themselves at a disadvantage in debating the CIA, whose deputy director, Mike Morell, took charge of organizing days of internal agency discussions into a coherent set of talking points for members of Congress.
For one, State Department officials could not disclose that one of the two U.S. sites attacked in Benghazi was run by the CIA because of its secret designation.
CIA operations in the area included disarming militias, including ones affiliated with Islamist extremist groups, several months after the U.S. military role in toppling Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Virtually every U.S. official assigned to Benghazi was based in the CIA annex — where the agency, not the State Department, was in charge of security.
The State Department was also chiefly responsible, along with the White House, for describing the events surrounding the deadly attacks publicly.
In addition to the State Department, the FBI and the Justice Department also objected to the CIA’s inclusion of Ansar al-Sharia in the talking points because it could have harmed the nascent investigation, senior administration officials said Friday.
In a statement, Jen Psaki, the State Department’s chief spokesperson, said Friday that the department first reviewed the talking points on the evening of Sept. 14, two days before Rice delivered them on a series of talk shows. She said Nuland raised two concerns. “First that the points went further in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation,” Psaki said. “Second, that the points were inconsistent with the public language the administration had used to date — meaning members of Congress would be providing more guidance to the public than the administration.”
In November, both Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and former CIA director David H. Petraeus briefed the intelligence committees about the talking points. After that testimony, DNI spokesman Shawn Turner told reporters that the intelligence community was solely responsible for “substantive” changes in the talking points.
A bipartisan report on Benghazi released by the Senate homeland security committee in December said that a senior CIA analyst had advocated including the al-Qaeda reference.
But Clapper, CIA, FBI and State Department counterterrorism officials told the committee that “changes characterizing the attacks as ‘demonstrations’ and removing references to al-Qaeda or its affiliates were made within the CIA and the” intelligence community.
“They also testified,” the Senate report said, “that no changes were made for political reasons, that there was no attempt to mislead the American people about what happened in Benghazi and that the only change made by the White House was to change a reference of ‘consulate’ to ‘mission.’ ”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has been traveling outside the country this week, said Friday that Benghazi was a “tragedy. But I hate to see it turned into a pure, prolonged, political process that really doesn’t tell us anything new about the facts.”
Greg Miller contributed to this report.
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