The White House released almost 100 pages of e-mail debate between President Obama’s staff, the CIA and the State Department that formed the basis for the administration’s public statements in the days that followed the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The documents capture two days of internal discussion over what to include in talking points about the Sept. 11, 2012, assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In the end, the information was so pared down, from six bullet points to three, that then-Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus suggested they be discarded.
Yesterday’s document release had been sought by Republican lawmakers in Congress who have accused the administration of tailoring what was said publicly to deflect criticism of Obama in the closing weeks of last year’s presidential campaign. The White House has insisted that it made only “stylistic” changes to an account originally drafted by the CIA.
The e-mails reveal a process where the agency made major revisions to the talking points, after receiving input from its staff and objections from the State Department, before delivering the finished version to Congress and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. An initial assertion that “Islamic extremists with links al-Qaeda” were involved in in the attack was changed to a suggestion that “extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
The release of the e-mails came as the administration also confronted two other controversies that have prompted calls for investigations in Congress and threatened to derail the President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda.
Obama announced that the acting head of the Internal Revenue Service was resigning. The IRS was giving extra scrutiny to groups seeking nonprofit status when they were Tea Party affiliated or advocating smaller government.
The White House, meanwhile, sought to revive a bill to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. Lawmakers and journalism organizations have condemned Obama’s Justice Department, which on Friday told the Associated Press that, without notification, it has subpoenaed telephone records of some of its reporters and editors.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the Benghazi e-mails don’t contradict the conclusions of an interim House report. That examination said that the State Department sought changes to avoid criticism that it didn’t heed warnings of extremist threats.
“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,” Buck said by e-mail.
The administration e-mails reveal how the drafting of a document originally requested by Congress quickly involved several government departments. Roughly six hours after the first draft was sent from the CIA to the White House on Sept. 14, one agency official wrote to another that the coordination process had run “into major problems.”
“A number of agencies have been looped in,” reads the e-mail, sent from the CIA official, whose name is redacted in the documents. “The White House has cleared quickly, but State has major concerns.”
In a briefing for reporters, the officials described the inter-agency process that produced the talking points as routine. Many of the State Department’s concerns were raised contemporaneously, and independently, by Mike Morell, deputy director at the CIA, according to one official, who asked not to be identified in describing the previously classified documents.
The documents show the talking points changing as they march through government agencies, shepherded by Morell, who makes the final edits. One page of the documents shows a copy of the talking points after edits from Morell, striking more than half of the sentences.
While some of Morell’s objections, such as the inclusion of previous warnings by the CIA about extremists in eastern Libya, were shared by the State Department, Morell arrived at his concerns independently, according to one official.
He removed a sentence that indicated the CIA “had produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” because it could have laid some of the blame for protecting Americans at the State Department, without giving its staff the opportunity to respond, according to one official.
At the same time, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised similar objections.
“I have serious concerns about all the parts highlighted below, and arming 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,” she wrote.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department and FBI will be prepared soon to release the results of their inquiry into how the four Americans died. “We have made very, very, very substantial progress in that investigation,” Holder told lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Morell made other changes to the talking points to ensure that they didn’t include any details that could have impeded the FBI’s investigation, according to the officials.
In the end, the pared-down talking points left CIA’s Petraeus disappointed.
“Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this,” he wrote after reviewing the talking points on the afternoon of Sept. 15. “This is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” he said, referring to Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Intelligence Committee Democrat.
While the administration officials said that final changes were made by Morell after a brief discussion at a deputies’ meeting on the morning of Sept. 15, an e-mail from an unidentified official in Rice’s office suggests otherwise.
“Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them,” read an e-mail from an official whose name was redacted for security reasons.
That contention was disputed by administration officials at the White House news briefing. Morell didn’t discuss the talking points in detail at the meeting, according one administration official.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings on the matter last week and Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said “more hearings and more information” are to come.