After nearly two days of editing, then CIA director David Petraeus was sent the revised Benghazi talking points on September 15, 2012. He was less than impressed, to put it mildly.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” Petraeus wrote in an email. “I’d just as soon not use this, then…”
Petraeus punted, however, writing that ultimately it was the National Security Staff’s (NSS’s) “call” to use the edited talking points.
What did the “cable to Cairo” say, exactly? Earlier versions of the talking points included the following sentence, or language very similar to it:
“On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy Cairo and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.”
When this was struck from the talking points, a key part of the story was lost. The protest in Cairo was not some unorganized reaction to a You Tube trailer for the video Innocence of Muslims. Al Qaeda-linked jihadists, including Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, help incite the Cairo protest, using that video trailer as a pretext.
The evidence for this is plain to see, as THE WEEKLY STANDARD has written here, here, here and here. (See also here.) The protest in Cairo was not just some anti-American affair, it was ostentatiously pro-al Qaeda. The protesters chanted “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama!” as dozens of al Qaeda flags were flown in the crowd. One such black banner was used to replace the American flag that normally sits atop the Embassy. It would be absurd to think the senior al Qaeda-linked jihadists standing out in front of the U.S. Embassy had nothing to do with this.
The spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Shawn Turner, did object to the wording of the CIA’s Cairo warning in the talking points, but he did not advocate removing it entirely. “I've been very careful not to say we issued a warning,” Turner wrote on the evening of September 14. Turner wanted the wording to be changed to read (emphasis added):
“On 10 September we notified Embassy Cairo of social media reports calling for a demonstration and encouraging jihadists to break into the Embassy."
And so it was. Then, on September 15, the language was struck entirely from the Benghazi talking points, prompting Petraeus’s objection. Anyone reading the talking points from then on would have no idea that there was a “jihadist” threat against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo prior to September 11, 2012.
The CIA’s earliest versions of the talking points included unwarranted assumptions, including that the attacks in Benghazi were “spontaneously inspired” by the protest in Cairo. Turner himself would later revise this assessment on September 28, when he wrote in a statement that the assault in Benghazi was “a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
And the CIA initially referred to “the attacks in Benghazi” only to change its wording to mention “the demonstrations in Benghazi,” which never actually took place. We do not know who introduced this error.
But left unsaid in all of the revisions to the narrative was that the protest in Cairo was deliberate and organized, too.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.