The White House on Wednesday released 94 pages of emails between top administration and intelligence officials who helped shape the talking points about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that the CIA would provide to policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches.
The documents, first reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD in articles here and here, directly contradict claims by White House press secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the revisions of those talking points were driven by the intelligence community and show heavy input from top Obama administration officials, particularly those at the State Department.
The emails provide further detail about the rewriting of the talking points during a 24-hour period from midday September 14 to midday September 15. As THE WEEKLY STANDARD previously reported, a briefing from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence shows that the big changes came in three waves – internally at the CIA, after email feedback from top administration officials, and during or after a meeting of high-ranking intelligence and national security officials the following morning.
The initial CIA changes softened some of the language about the participants in the Benghazi assault – from “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda” to “Islamic extremists.” But CIA officials also added bullet points about the possible participation of Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group, and previous warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi. Those additions came out after the talking points were sent to “the interagency,” where the CIA’s final draft was further stripped down to little more than boilerplate. The half dozen references to terrorists – both in Benghazi and more generally – all but disappeared. Gone were references to al Qaeda, Ansar al Sharia, jihadists, Islamic extremists, etc. The only remaining mention was a note that “extremists” had participated in the attack.
As striking as what appears in the email traffic is what does not. There is no mention of the YouTube video that would become a central part of the administration’s explanation of the attacks to the American people until a brief mention in the subject line of emails coming out of an important meeting where further revisions were made.
Carney, in particular, is likely to face tough questioning about the contents of the emails because he made claims to reporters that were untrue. “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two – of these two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility,’ because the word ‘consulate’ was inaccurate,” he told reporters on November 28, 2012.
That’s not true. An email sent at 9:15 PM on September 14, from an official in the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs to others at the agency, described the process this way. “The State Department had major reservations with much or most of the document. We revised the document with their concerns in mind.”
That directly contradicts what Carney said. It’s also difficult to reconcile with claims made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during testimony she gave January 23 on Capitol Hill.
“It was an intelligence product,” she said, adding later that the “intelligence community was the principal decider about what went into talking points.” (See here for the original version of the talking points and the final one.)
Carney and other top Obama administration officials have long maintained that CIA officials revised the talking points with minimal input from Obama administration officials. The claim made little sense when they made it – why would CIA officials revise on their own a set of talking points they’d already finalized? The emails demonstrate clearly that it isn’t true.
Another CIA email, this one a draft of a message for CIA director David Petraeus, noted that the talking points process had “run into major problems,” in part because of the “major concerns” raised by the State Department. That same email reported that the issues would be revisited at the Deputies Committee meeting on Saturday morning.
Elsewhere, CIA officials seemed to understand that the document had been stripped of most of its content. An email from an official with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis, the office that drafted the original version of the talking points, signed off on the final version but seemed to understand that the new version wouldn’t please those who had requested it. “They are fine with me,” this CIA official wrote. “But, pretty sure HPSCI [the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] won’t like them. :-)”
When Petraeus received the rewritten talking points, he objected. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this,” he wrote to a legislative affairs staffer. But he declined to put up a fight.
The documents answer some questions and raise many others. Did Hillary Clinton have any role in the efforts of State Department staffers to push for the many substantive revisions to the talking points? Clinton, who testified that she was a hands-on part of the State Department’s response to the attacks, has claimed she had nothing to do with the talking points.
And what about the administration’s claims that State and White House officials weren’t involved with substantive edits? In one email, Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, reports to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that he’s spoken with Obama’s top spokesman at the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor. “I spoke with Tommy. We’ll work through this in the morning and get comments back.”
In a separate email, he writes: “Talked to Tommy. We can make edits.”