CIA director David Petraeus was surprised when he read the freshly rewritten talking points an aide had emailed him in the early afternoon of Saturday, September 15. One day earlier, analysts with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis had drafted a set of unclassified talking points policymakers could use to discuss the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. But this new version—produced with input from senior Obama administration policymakers—was a shadow of the original.
The original CIA talking points had been blunt: The assault on U.S. facilities in Benghazi was a terrorist attack conducted by a large group of Islamic extremists, including some with ties to al Qaeda.
These were strong claims. The CIA usually qualifies its assessments, providing policymakers a sense of whether the conclusions of its analysis are offered with “high confidence,” “moderate confidence,” or “low confidence.” That first draft signaled confidence, even certainty: “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.”
There was good reason for this conviction. Within 24 hours of the attack, the U.S. government had intercepted communications between two al Qaeda-linked terrorists discussing the attacks in Benghazi. One of the jihadists, a member of Ansar al Sharia, reported to the other that he had participated in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post. Solid evidence. And there was more. Later that same day, the CIA station chief in Libya had sent a memo back to Washington, reporting that eyewitnesses to the attack said the participants were known jihadists, with ties to al Qaeda.
Before circulating the talking points to administration policymakers in the early evening of Friday, September 14, CIA officials changed “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda” to simply “Islamic extremists.” But elsewhere, they added new contextual references to radical Islamists. They noted that initial press reports pointed to Ansar al Sharia involvement and added a bullet point highlighting the fact that the agency had warned about another potential attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in the region. “On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the [Cairo] Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.” All told, the draft of the CIA talking points that was sent to top Obama administration officials that Friday evening included more than a half-dozen references to the enemy—al Qaeda, Ansar al Sharia, jihadists, Islamic extremists, and so on.
The version Petraeus received in his inbox Saturday, however, had none. The only remaining allusion to the bad guys noted that “extremists” might have participated in “violent demonstrations.”
In an email at 2:44 p.m. to Chip Walter, head of the CIA’s legislative affairs office, Petraeus expressed frustration at the new, scrubbed talking points, noting that they had been stripped of much of the content his agency had provided. Petraeus noted with evident disappointment that the policymakers had even taken out the line about the CIA’s warning on Cairo. The CIA director, long regarded as a team player, declined to pick a fight with the White House and seemed resigned to the propagation of the administration’s preferred narrative. The final decisions about what to tell the American people rest with the national security staff, he reminded Walter, and not with the CIA.
This candid, real-time assessment from then-CIA director Petraeus offers a glimpse of what many intelligence officials were saying privately as top Obama officials set aside the truth about Benghazi and spun a fanciful tale about a movie that never mattered and a demonstration that never happened.
“The YouTube video was a nonevent in Libya,” said Gregory Hicks, a 22-year veteran diplomat and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli at the time of the attacks, in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on May 8. “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that there had been an attack on a consulate . . . no protest.”
So how did Jay Carney, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others come to sell the country a spurious narrative about a movie and a protest?
There are still more questions than answers. But one previously opaque aspect of the Obama administration’s efforts is becoming somewhat clearer. An email sent to Susan Rice following a key White House meeting where officials coordinated their public story lays out what happened in that meeting and offers more clues about who might have rewritten the talking points.
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.
Hicks testified last week that he was not consulted on the talking points and was surprised when he saw Rice make a case that had little to do with what had happened in Benghazi. “I was stunned,” he said. “My jaw dropped.”
The hearings last week produced fresh details on virtually every aspect of the Benghazi controversy and raised new questions. By the end of some six hours of testimony, several Democrats on the committee had joined their Republican colleagues in calling for more hearings, additional witnesses, and the release of unclassified documents related to the attacks in Benghazi.
On May 9, House speaker John Boehner echoed the calls for those unclassified Benghazi documents to be made public. He had two specific requests. First, Boehner called for the release of an email from Beth Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near East affairs, sent on September 12. Jones wrote to her colleagues to describe a conversation she’d had with Libya’s ambassador to the United States. When the Libyan raised the possibility that loyalists to Muammar Qaddafi might have been involved, Jones corrected him. “When he said his government suspected that former Gadhafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” Among those copied on the email: Jake Sullivan, Victoria Nuland, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and longtime confidante.
Second, Boehner asked the White House to release the 100 pages of internal administration emails related to the drafting and editing of the talking points. Sources tell The Weekly Standard that House Republicans will subpoena them if the administration does not turn them over voluntarily.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was time to “move on” from Benghazi. More recently, Jay Carney suggested the same thing, explaining that Benghazi had happened “a long time ago.”
But it’s increasingly clear that congressional Republicans, and many Americans, will not move on until the outstanding questions about Benghazi are answered.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
Correction: This piece originally said that Victoria Nuland suggested changes to the talking points because she was concerned about criticism from Republicans in Congress. That's inaccurate. She suggested changes because of concerns from members of Congress.