Former CIA director David Petraeus addresses a University of Southern California event honoring the military on March 26 in Los Angeles. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The controversy over the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attack last year began at a meeting over coffee on Capitol Hill three days after the assault.

It was at this informal session with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the ranking Democrat asked David H. Petraeus, who was CIA director at the time, to ensure that committee members did not inadvertently disclose classified information when talking to the news media about the attack.

“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.

The attack

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.

Recriminations in Washington began within hours. But it was not until a month later that it became clear that the CIA, rather than the State Department, maintained the most significant presence in Benghazi.

Near the diplomatic outpost was a CIA installation where about two dozen intelligence and security personnel were based. Their mission was to track weapons shipments out of the country and to identify the numerous militias operating in Benghazi.

Security at this annex was the responsibility of the CIA, not the State Department. But because the annex operated under diplomatic cover, its existence as an intelligence facility was classified.

The State Department and the White House became the primary focus of the public criticism.

The debate within the CIA

After Petraeus’s morning coffee on Sept. 14, the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis sent an internal agency e-mail with the subject line: “FLASH coordination — white paper for HPSCI,” referring to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The committee “has asked for unclassified points immediately that they can use in talking to the media,” the e-mail said.

Then, shifting into the first person, the office’s director, who had accompanied Petraeus to the coffee, wrote, “I have been asked to provide a bit on responsibility,” including “warnings we gave to Cairo prior to the demonstration, as well as material on warnings we issued prior to 9/11 anniversary.”

Included was a six-point draft that began, “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired” by anti-American demonstrations elsewhere “and evolved” into assaults against “the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex.”

It followed with a reference to previous attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi and a mention of Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda. That information, put in at Petraeus’s request, would become the chief source of tension between the agency, the State Department and the FBI.

Fifteen minutes after that e-mail, the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs sent its own internal message, with the subject line: “Due-Outs from HPSCI coffee.”

The first item for the committee was a “white paper” on media guidance — the talking points that would emerge a few hours later.

In addition, the e-mail listed two items “For DCIA,” a reference to Petraeus. That request included “Cable(s) to [redacted] warning of protests linked to the film and response” and “cable(s) to stations on 9/11 security.”

Republicans would later contend that the CIA had wanted to tell the truth about what unfolded that day but that the State Department, with White House support, removed the information for political reasons amid a heated presidential campaign.

But the e-mails reveal that the initial talking points also generated tension and confusion within the CIA, as officials sought to understand how Petraeus’s requests squared with what the committee had asked for.

Stephen W. Preston, the CIA’s general counsel, was among those most concerned with the first draft.

In an internal agency e-mail at 4:24 p.m. that Friday, he acknowledged that “there is a hurry to get this out.” The talking points should not “conflict with express instructions” from the National Security Council, the FBI and the Justice Department, he wrote, and that “in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this.”

Although Ansar al-Sharia had quickly backed off an initial assertion of responsibility for the Benghazi attack, the group did not deny that some of its members were involved.

But its likely involvement was a classified matter, senior administration officials said, and the FBI had objected to including the information in the talking points on the grounds that doing so would undermine its investigation of the attack.

“I am copying the CIA front office,” Preston wrote, referring to Petraeus’s department, “who may be more familiar with those instructions and the tasking arising from the HPSCI coffee.”

Less than an hour later, the agency sent the talking points, which had been strengthened to include repeated CIA security warnings, to the White House and other agencies for review. The reference to Ansar remained in the draft, as did a line particularly beneficial to the CIA.

“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” the fifth talking point began.

At 6:21 p.m., then-National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor e-mailed the CIA Office of Public Affairs saying that Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, who has since become the White House chief of staff, had asked that “highlighted portions” of the draft be “coordinated with the State Department in the event that they get inquiries.”

The highlights indicated that McDonough’s main concern was the information about the prior CIA warnings to U.S. diplomatic missions in North Africa — information that was included at Petraeus’s request.

State Department balks

At 7:39 p.m. Friday, Victoria Nuland, then the State Department’s chief spokesperson, e-mailed deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes; Jake Sullivan, director of policy planning at State; Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and others. She expressed “serious concerns” about including Ansar and mentioning “warnings” in the talking points.

Nuland said the mention of the warnings “could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.”

Rhodes responded, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation,” and suggested that the issue be resolved the next morning during a previously scheduled meeting of the national security deputies.

“We’ve tried to work the draft talking points for HPSCI through the coordination process but have run into major problems,” the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs wrote to Petraeus at 9:52 p.m. Sept. 14. “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns.”

Early the next morning, CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, informed of the State Department’s concerns, took his own editing pencil to the talking points.

He agreed with Nuland that the warnings about other protests in the region were irrelevant to the committee request, senior administration officials said, and that any mention of Ansar could expose classified information.

At 9:45 a.m. Saturday, Morell sent out his edited version of the talking points, pared down to three bullet points. A few minutes later, the terrorism analysis director, who had written the original version after attending the coffee with Petraeus, responded.

“They are fine with me. But, pretty sure HPSCI won’t like them,” the official wrote, signing off with a smiley-face emoticon.

A little more than two hours later, an e-mail to Morell from Petraeus’s front office staff expressed concern about what was happening to the talking points.

“Before going to the committee, may I please ask you to send these to the Director?” the front office wrote. “He needs to know in advance what is going to the Hill in his name, even if it is going with the force of the full interagency coordination.”

Morell responded with concern about whether Petraeus would approve the document, even after other agencies had signed off.

“Please run the points by the Director, then get them to
HPSCI,” he wrote soon after. “I spoke to the Director earlier about State’s deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this, but you will want to reemphasize in your note to DCIA.”

Morell was right to be worried.

In an e-mail sent two hours later to Morell and others inside the agency, Petraeus wrote, “No mention of the cable to Cairo, either? Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then. . . [National Security Council] call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use.”

Asked about Petraeus’s warning, Ruppersberger said, “I’m not sure what he meant. I had no expectations.”