Under fire, White House releases Benghazi talking-points emails

Rachel Rose Hartman and Olivier Knox
The Ticket

Under heavy political pressure, the White House on Wednesday released 100 pages of internal Obama administration emails in which senior officials debated what to tell Americans about the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

For months, Republicans have charged that the White House watered down the original CIA-crafted talking points about the attack in order to protect Obama's election-year prospects. The White House has accused Republicans of giving reporters "fabricated" versions of the back-and-forth to hurt the president politically.

The documents released do not appear to contain references that would suggest a politically motivated cover-up.

The emails show that the CIA on Sept. 14, 2012, wrote a draft of the requested talking points and then, in later drafts on the same day, removed references to al-Qaida, and changed Benghazi "attacks" to Benghazi "demonstrations"—all without consultation or input from the White House.

"The attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo," read one phrase in the original talking points. That was changed later that afternoon to read: "The demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo," a change senior administration officials said on Wednesday was due to the first wording being deemed an awkward account of the events.

Also, the original draft referred to "Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qai'da" participating in the attack, but the reference to extremists was later couched and the reference to al-Qaida removed citing the ongoing FBI investigation.

The emails also show that while the White House implied its only role in the talking points was to request a "stylistic" change—Benghazi "consulate" to "diplomatic post"—it was actively engaged with agencies in debating the talking points' content. Notably, however, no changes appear to be of a political nature.

Also revealed was that Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, expressed some concerns, including a reference to prior attacks in Benghazi, which Nuland said could suggest security warnings were ignored and offer ammunition to their Republican critics in Congress. Senior administration officials said Wednesday that CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell had supported those same changes independently of Nuland.

One page in the 100-page document dump includes handwritten notes from Morell, including a mistake where officials say the director accidentally redacted a bullet point.

The emails also suggest that then-CIA Director David Petraeus desired to see more information released in the talking points.

"No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?" Petraeus wrote during the CIA's edit exchange, after other mentions by the CIA of warnings about attacks on Cairo's U.S. Embassy. "Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this, then," Petraeus added.

Senior administration officials on Wednesday referred questions regarding the intent behind Petraeus' emails to Petraeus himself.

“You can now see what the Congress has seen—collectively these emails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House's interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. "After 11 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents, and now this release, we can hopefully spend our time working on what’s important—what we can do together to ensure those serving their nation overseas are better protected than they were last September."

Republicans have charged that the White House played down the role of suspected terrorists in the attack, which left four Americans dead including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, so as not to undermine its message that al-Qaida was on the run. Obama has flatly denied any attempt to deceive the public, and on Monday he called the allegations a "sideshow" that dishonors the memories of those killed.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner released a statement shortly after the White House released the emails suggesting that Republicans would not let up on demanding more information about the federal government's response to the attack in Benghazi.

“The House interim report found that ‘senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi’ and that those changes were ultimately made," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. "Those findings are confirmed by the emails released today, and they contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points.

"The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them," he continued. "This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the Administration has still refused to produce. We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come.”

Chris Moody contributed to this report.