White House releases Benghazi e-mails
(CNN) — The White House released more than 100 pages of e-mails on Wednesday in a bid to quell critics who say President Barack Obama and his aides played politics with national security following the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The exchanges detailing discussions between top Obama administration officials from multiple agencies suggest the CIA took the lead in developing talking points to describe the attack last September 11 that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Those talking points, which were requested by members of the House Intelligence Committee, were originally drafted by the CIA. The lawmakers had requested unclassified information they could use in media interviews.
Following the original drafting of talking points, CIA analysts made a handful of significant changes, according to administration sources.
In the CIA’s original set of talking points, the first bullet point included a reference that the Benghazi attack was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex.”
It noted assessments could change “as additional information is collected and analyzed.”
The second bullet point noted the attackers in Benghazi was comprised of “a mix of individuals from across many sections of Libyan society.”
It specified that intelligence officials did not know whether Islamic extremists, including those aligned with al Qaeda, has participated in the attack.
This bullet was later changed after a CIA analyst questioned whether the current intelligence supported the assertion that extremists had participated in the attack.
Another CIA officer agreed, stating the intel placed extremists at a protest, but could not support the notion that extremists were responsible for the Americans’ deaths.
The editing team revised so that talking point read, “The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. The investigation is on-going as to who is responsible. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
The second CIA change was to the swap out the word “attacks” with “demonstrations” in the first bullet point, which an administration source said was to eliminate an awkward and illogical account of events.
A third change the CIA made was to remove to name al Qaeda from the second talking point, which was done because they didn’t want to get ahead of the FBI’s own investigation.
A final CIA addition to the talking points was a warning about the security situation at the time of the attack.
But that warning was eventually removed. Senior administration officials say that long before the CIA heard concerns from the State Department about warnings being put in the talking points, CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell advocated for taking the warnings out, since he felt the talking points should focus on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, rather than the previous six months.
He also felt it was unprofessional and unfair for the CIA to cite its own warnings to the State Department, officials said.
Victoria Nuland, then the State Department spokeswoman, raised concerns over the CIA’s first version of the talking points, saying that they went further than what she was allowed to say about the attack during her briefings.
She also questioned including information about CIA warnings on extremist threats linked to al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya, saying “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned…”
The unclassified talking points have become a political flashpoint in a long-running battle between the administration and Republicans, who say that officials knew the attack was a planned terror operation while they were telling the public it was an act of violence that grew out of a demonstration over a video produced in the United States that insulted Islam.
The Benghazi issue has renewed GOP criticism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered the certain Democratic frontrunner if she decides to run for president in 2016.
In particular, Republicans accuse the administration of not bolstering security prior to the attack, of botching the response to it, and of misleading the public in its slow-to-evolve explanation of events less than two months before the November election.