The CIA’s unclassified Benghazi talking points were a major focus of former CIA Director David Petraeus’ closed testimony on Capitol Hill on Friday.
Those talking points have become a bone of contention because U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice used them to prepare for her network television interviews five days after the attack. Rice has been criticized by Republicans for having said at the time that the attack in Benghazi was a spontaneous protest in response to an anti-Muslim video filmed in the United States.
The political sparring over those comments have centered on what was in the talking points provided to the House Intelligence Committee (which Rice had as well) in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
The Washington Post quoted the talking points in a column published on Oct. 19, but it was not until today that a U.S. government official went on the record to confirm their accuracy.
On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, read the talking points to reporters staking out Petraeus’ appearance before her committee.
Here are the talking points:
The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the United States Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against United States diplomatic posts in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated. The investigation is ongoing, and the United States government is working with Libyan authorities to bring justice to those responsible for the death of United States citizens.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points provided some insights Friday into how they came about. According to the official, the talking points drafted by the CIA were “a reflection of the understanding at the time that could be provided at an unclassified level. They were preliminary and were never meant to be the final word on the issue.”
The official said that they were coordinated at a senior level within the intelligence community and “were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack.”
Because the talking points were to be unclassified, the official said intelligence and legal issues had to be considered. For one, the official said the information about the attack involving individuals linked to al-Qaeda came from classified sources. Secondly, the official said those links were “so tenuous, as they still are, it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions. ”
The talking points used the term “extremists” to describe those behind the Benghazi attack. The subsequent political fight over whether the attack should have been described as a terrorist attack seems to have caught intelligence officials off-guard. ”People assumed that it was apparent in this context that extremists who attack U.S. facilities and kill Americans are, by definition, terrorists,” said the official.
“The controversy this word choice caused came as a surprise,” said the official.