Exclusive: Benghazi Talking Points Underwent 12 Revisions, Scrubbed of Terror Reference

May 10, 2013 6:33am

When it became clear last fall that the CIA’s now discredited Benghazi talking points were flawed, the White House said repeatedly the documents were put together almost entirely by the intelligence community, but White House documents reviewed by Congress suggest a different story.

ABC News has obtained 12 different versions of the talking points that show they were extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack.

gty benghazi dm 130425 wblog Exclusive: Benghazi Talking Points Underwent 12 Revisions, Scrubbed of Terror Reference

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Related: Read the Full Benghazi Talking Point Revisions

Editor’s Note: There were differences between ABC News’ original reporting on an email by Ben Rhodes, below, and the actual wording of that email which have now been corrected. ABC News should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error. The remainder of the report stands as accurate. 

White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department.  The edits included requests from the State Department that references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia be deleted as well references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack.

That would appear to directly contradict what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said about the talking points in November.

“Those talking points originated from the intelligence community.  They reflect the IC’s best assessments of what they thought had happened,” Carney told reporters at the White House press briefing on November 28, 2012.  “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 institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate.”

Summaries of White House and State Department emails — some of which were first published by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard — show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland raised specific objections to this paragraph drafted by the CIA in its earlier versions of the talking points:

“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya.  These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”

In an email to officials at the White House and the intelligence agencies, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland took issue with including that information because it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?  Concerned …”

The paragraph was entirely deleted.

Like the final version used by Ambassador Rice on the Sunday shows, the CIA’s first drafts said the attack appeared to have been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” but the CIA version went on to say, “That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.”  The draft went on to specifically name  the al Qaeda-affiliated group named Ansar al-Sharia.

Related: ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl Answers Your Questions About Benghazi

Once again, Nuland objected to naming the terrorist groups because “we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.”

In response, an NSC staffer coordinating the review of the talking points wrote back to Nuland, “The FBI did not have major concerns with the points and offered only a couple minor suggestions.”

After the talking points were edited slightly to address Nuland’s concerns, she responded that changes did not go far enough.

“These changes don’t resolve all of my issues or those of my buildings leadership,” Nuland wrote.

In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. — three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows – Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department’s concerns needed to be addressed.

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

Related: Diplomat Says Requests For Benghazi Rescue Were Rejected

After that meeting, which took place Saturday morning at the White House, the CIA drafted the final version of the talking points – deleting all references to al Qaeda and to the security warnings in Benghazi prior to the attack.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said none of this contradicts what he said about the talking points because ultimately all versions were actually written and signed-off by the CIA.

“The CIA drafted these talking points and redrafted these talking points,” Carney said. “The fact that there are inputs is always the case in a process like this, but the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and nonsubstantive. They corrected the description of the building or the facility in Benghazi from consulate to diplomatic facility and the like. And ultimately, this all has been discussed and reviewed and provided in enormous levels of detail by the administration to Congressional investigators, and the attempt to politicize the talking points, again, is part of an effort to, you know, chase after what isn’t the substance here.”

UPDATE:  A source familiar with the White House emails on the Benghazi talking point revisions say that State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland was raising two concerns about the CIA’s first version of talking points, which were going to be sent to Congress:  1) The talking points went further than what she was allowed to say about the attack during her state department briefings; and, 2) she believed the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department’s expense by suggesting CIA warnings about the security situation were ignored.

In one email, Nuland asked, why are we suggest Congress “start making assertions to the media [about the al Qaeda connection] that we ourselves are not making because we don’t want to prejudice the investigation?”

One other point:  The significant edits – deleting references to al Qaeda and the CIA’s warnings – came after a White House meeting on the Saturday before Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday shows.  Nuland, a 30-year foreign service veteran who has served under Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State, was not at that meeting and played no direct role in preparing Rice for her interviews.

UPDATE on May 14th at 4:40 p.m.:

CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday afternoon obtained a version of the same White House e-mail I reported on last week that showed the evolving Benghazi talking points being shaped by the Obama administration last September.

That e-mail, authored by then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the evening of Sept. 14, 2012, reads, according to CNN:

“Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.

“There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.

“We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies.”

This helps fill out the portrait of the inter-agency deliberations that went into shaping the now-discredited talking points. Assuming, as appears to be the case based on time stamps, that this is a version of the same e-mail ABC News reported on last week, there are some differences.

This is how I reported the contents of that e-mail, quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes:

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

The source was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails. The White House has refused multiple requests – from journalists, including myself, and from Republican leaders in Congress – to release the full e-mail exchanges.

The differences in the two versions are being taken by some as evidence that my source sought to intentionally mislead about the extent of State Department involvement in changing the talking points. The version I obtained makes specific reference to the State Department, while the version reported by CNN references only “all of the relevant equities” and does not single out State.

But there’s another important note here that touches on State Department involvement and shows that the portrait remains far from complete. The subject line of the e-mail, according to CNN, was “Re: Revised HPSCI Talking Points for Review.”

The e-mail was sent to, among others, officials at the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence office, the National Security Council, and the State Department, including then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The official who provided this e-mail to CNN removed the other e-mail exchanges from other principals. That includes anything written by Nuland, who – as I reported – objected to a paragraph in the draft talking points that referenced prior threats against US and other foreign interests in Libya.

In that e-mail, according to source, Nuland wrote that such information “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?  Concerned …”

The paragraph Nuland was “concerned” about was removed in its entirety. That e-mail has not been disputed by the administration.

I asked my original source today to explain the different wording on the Ben Rhodes e-mail, and the fact that the words “State Department” were not included in the e-mail provided to CNN’s Tapper.

This was my source’s response, via e-mail: “WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.”

The White House could still clear up this confusion by releasing the full e-mail transcripts that were provided for brief review by a select number of members of Congress earlier this year. If there’s “no ‘there’ there,” as President Obama himself claimed yesterday, a full release should help his case.

 

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