The Magazine

The Benghazi Scandal Grows

The State Department, the CIA, the White House . . .

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The CIA’s talking points, the ones that went out that Friday evening, were distributed via email to a group of top Obama administration officials. Forty-five minutes after receiving them, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concerns about their contents, particularly the likelihood that members of Congress would criticize the State Department for “not paying attention to Agency warnings.” CIA officials responded with a new draft, stripped of all references to Ansar al Sharia.

In an email a short time later, Nuland wrote that the changes did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership.” She did not specify whom she meant by State Department “building leadership.” Ben Rhodes, a top Obama foreign policy and national security adviser, responded to the group, explaining that Nuland had raised valid concerns and advising that the issues would be resolved at a meeting of the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee the following morning. The Deputies Committee consists of high-ranking officials at the agencies with responsibility for national security​—​including State, Defense, and the CIA​—​as well as senior White House national security staffers.

The Deputies Committee convened the next morning, Saturday the 15th. Some participants met in person, while others joined via a Secure Video Teleconference System (abbreviated SVTS and pronounced “siv-its”).

The proceedings were summarized in an email to U.N. ambassador Rice shortly after the meeting ended. The subject line read: “SVTS on Movie/Protests/violence.” The name of the sender is redacted, but whoever it was had an email address suggesting a job working for the United States at the United Nations.

According to the email, several officials in the meeting shared the concern of Nuland, who was not part of the deliberations, that the CIA’s talking points might lead to criticism that the State Department had ignored the CIA’s warning about an attack. Mike Morell, deputy director of the CIA, agreed to work with Jake Sullivan and Rhodes to edit the talking points. At the time, Sullivan was deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department’s director of policy planning; he is now the top national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Denis McDonough, then a top national security adviser to Obama and now his chief of staff, deferred on Rhodes’s behalf to Sullivan.

The email to Rice reported that Sullivan would work with a small group of individuals from the intelligence community to finalize the talking points on Saturday before sending them on to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which had originated the request for talking points.

The sender of the email spoke with Sullivan after the meeting, reminding him that Rice would be doing the Sunday morning shows and needed to receive the final talking points. Sullivan committed to making sure Rice was updated before the Sunday shows. The sender told Sullivan the name of the staffer (redacted in the email) who would be running Rice’s prep session and encouraged the team to keep Rice in the loop.

At 2:44 p.m., the author of the email to Rice followed up directly with Sullivan, asking for a copy of the talking points to help with Rice’s preparation for TV. Sullivan promised to provide them.

A senior Obama administration official did not challenge the accuracy of the email to Rice, but disputed any implication that Sullivan was responsible for rewriting the talking points. “The CIA circulated revised talking points to the interagency after the Deputies Committee meeting and Jake Sullivan did not comment substantively on those points.”

This official pointed to Jay Carney’s comments this week. “What we said and what remains true to this day is that the intelligence community drafted and redrafted these points.”

But Carney’s claim raises an obvious question: Why would intelligence community officials want to redraft talking points they’d already finalized?

The major substantive changes came Friday evening, after a State Department official expressed concerns about criticism from members of Congress, and Saturday morning, following the Deputies Committee meeting, where, according to internal Obama administration emails, officials further revised the talking points.

What’s clear is that the final version did not reflect the views of the top intelligence official on the ground in Benghazi, who had reported days earlier that the assault had been a terrorist attack conducted by jihadists with links to al Qaeda, or the top U.S. diplomat in Libya, Gregory Hicks.

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