The Washington Post

Obama administration releases e-mails detailing agencies’ debate over Benghazi

The Obama administration released 100 pages of e-mails Wednesday that reveal differences between intelligence analysts and State Department officials over how to initially describe the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

The internal debate did not include political interference from the White House, according to the e-mails, which were provided to congressional intelligence committees several months ago.

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.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.