WASHINGTON – Political considerations influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department emails.
The latest disclosures Friday raised new questions about whether the Obama administration tried to play down any terrorist factor in the attack on a diplomatic compound just weeks before the November presidential election. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when insurgents struck the U.S. mission in two nighttime attacks.
The White House has insisted that it made only a “stylistic” change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.
Numerous agencies had engaged in an email discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Rice for their public comments. In one email, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamic extremists in Benghazi.
Nuland’s email said such revelations “could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to (central intelligence) agency warnings,” according to a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of emails.
The final talking points that weekend reflected the work of several government agencies – CIA, FBI, State Department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence – apparently determined to cast themselves in the best light as the investigation was just getting underway.
A scathing independent report in December found that “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” of the State Department meant that security was “inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
Eight months after the attack, the long-running and bitter dispute between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on the subject shows no sign of abating. The GOP argues that the administration deliberately tried to mislead Congress and the American people. The White House insists that Republicans are trying to politicize the issue.
“There’s an ongoing effort to make something political out of this,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday of the disclosure of the emails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers. “The problem with that effort is that it’s never been clear what it is they think they’re accusing the administration of doing.”
Republicans have complained that the administration was trying to conceal that the attack was the work of terrorists and not a protest over an anti-Islamic film that got out of hand. Such revelations just before the election perhaps could have undercut President Barack Obama’s record on fighting terrorism, including the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, one of his re-election strengths.
The State Department emails and other internal administration deliberations were summarized last month in an interim investigative report by Republicans on five House committees. New details about political concerns and the names of the administration officials who wrote the emails concerning the talking points emerged on Friday.
Following Capitol Hill briefings in the days after the attack, members of Congress asked the CIA for talking points to explain the assault, and the CIA under the direction of David Petraeus put together an assessment.
It said Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida took part in the attack, cited reports linking the attack to the group Ansar al-Sharia, mentioned the experience of Libyan fighters and referred to previous warnings of threats in Benghazi.
The reference to al-Sharia was deleted, but Nuland wrote later that night that changes she had seen “don’t resolve all my issues and those of my building leadership, they are consulting with NSS,” a reference to the National Security staff within the White House.
She also wrote that she had serious concerns about giving information to members of Congress “to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.”
Senior administration officials, including Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff at the State Department, and Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, met that Saturday morning to finalize the talking points.
Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell worked with the officials to produce a final set of talking points that deleted mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya and Islamic extremists, according to the congressional official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the emails that still have not been released.
The next day, Sunday, Sept. 16, Rice appeared on the talk shows and said evidence gathered so far showed no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike. She said the attack in Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be a copycat of demonstrations that had erupted hours earlier outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, spurred by accounts of a YouTube film attributed to a California man mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
“In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video,” she said. “People gathered outside the embassy, and then it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control.”
Administration officials said Friday they deleted the references to terror groups because it was then unclear – and still is – who was responsible for the attack.
Rice’s depiction of the chain of events contrasted with one offered by Libya’s Interim President Mohammed el-Megarif, who said at the time there was no doubt the perpetrators had predetermined the date of the attack.
“It was planned, definitely. It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago,” el-Megarif said. “And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival.”
At a House hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., read from an email he said was written by Beth Jones, the State Department official responsible for Near Eastern Affairs, the day after the Benghazi attack that suggested the State Department had at least some belief that the attack was the work of terrorists.
According to Gowdy’s reading, the Sept. 12, 2012, email by Jones said: “I spoke to the Libyan ambassador and emphasized importance of Libyan leaders continuing to make strong statements. ... When he said his government suspected that former Gadhafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”
The Republican lawmaker said the email by Jones was sent to a number of State Department officials, including Nuland.
Yet Rice still went on the Sunday talk shows several days later to “perpetuate a demonstrably false narrative,” Gowdy said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the department reviewed the talking points on Friday, Sept. 14, and raised two primary 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. 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.”
An official familiar with the emails said former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was unaware of Nuland’s concerns about the talking points. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The White House has long maintained that it played a minimal role in crafting the talking points, pinning that process on intelligence agencies. The White House also said it made just one “stylistic” change to the talking points, which was to change the reference to the Benghazi compound from a “consulate” to a “diplomatic mission.”