The Benghazi Emails: Talking Points Changed at State Dept.'s Request

PHOTO: An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012.
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After months of demands from Republicans in Congress, the White House has released emails related to what the administration said in the days after the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

The emails confirm the ABC News report that the so-called "talking points" written by the CIA on the attack underwent extensive revisions – 12 versions – and that substantial changes were made after the State Department expressed concerns.

The early versions of the talking points, drafted entirely by the CIA, included references to the al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia and to previous CIA warnings about terror threats in Benghazi. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland expressed concerns about including those references in the talking points.

In one email, previously reported by ABC News, Nuland said that including the CIA warnings "could be used by Members [of Congress] to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that? Concerned …"

After some changes were made, Nuland was still not satisfied.

"These don't resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership," Nuland wrote.

Read the Benghazi emails here

A senior administration official said that Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell agreed with Nuland's concerns and made the changes himself. There is no email record, however, showing that Morrell shared Nuland's concerns.

All 12 versions of the talking points, as previously reported by ABC News, say that the attack in Benghazi was "spontaneously inspired by protest in Cairo." In other words, all the talk of protests – which proved to be wrong – started with the CIA. What did get removed was the CIA's saying that it believed Ansar al-Sharia took part in the attack and that the CIA had warned of the terror threat.

Republicans have extensively criticized U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice for indicating, in a TV appearance after the attacks, demonstrations outside the Benghazi diplomatic facility had spawned the attack. The White House has repeatedly maintained that Rice used intelligence-community talking points that represented the administration's best knowledge of what had happened. White House press secretary Jay Carney has maintained that the intelligence community drafted the talking points and that White House staff only made cosmetic and stylistic changes to them.

But emails show that the State Department had also raised concerns about mentions that the CIA had produced material -- before the attack -- on the threat of al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Benghazi. In addition, State expressed concerns about pointing to Ansar al Sharia before the FBI/Justice Department had concluded its investigation of the attack.

"I'm with Toria," wrote then Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs David S. Adams, agreeing with Nuland's concerns about a section on the CIA's intelligence on Benghazi extremists. "That last bullet especially will read to members [of Congress] like we had been repeatedly warned."

Another email, with the sender's name redacted, indicates concern about accuracy that the CIA "warned" about calls for jihadists to storm the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, a word that was originally included in the CIA's talking points. CIA press official Shawn Turner expressed the same concern about the word. "I've been very careful not to say we issued a warning," Turner wrote, before State Department officials raised its concerns.

The newly released emails provide a fuller picture of the discussion among federal departments, the intelligence community and the White House about Benghazi. Throughout the drafting process, intelligence officials had included the idea that the Benghazi attack was spawned by a spontaneous demonstration.

The first of three talking points in the final version read: "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations." Similar language topped all drafts of the Benghazi talking points.

Then Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes urged the participants of the email chain to sort out their differences over the talking points with each department's interests in mind. In "a draft note to the DIRECTOR," intelligence officials appear to have identified the State Department as driving the changes to the CIA's drafts.

"The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns," an official, whose name was redacted, wrote.

In the end, administration officials signed off on major changes to the talking points. One email includes handwritten edits in which sections of the talking points were crossed out. According to a senior administration official, the handwriting is Morrell's.

The following sections were crossed out and removed from later drafts:

  • "On 10 September the Agency notified Embassy Cairo of social media reports calling for a demonstration and encouraging jihadists to break into the Embassy."
  • "... as to who is responsible for the violence, although the crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals. That being said, there are indications that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
  • "The wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya almost certainly contributed to the lethality of the attacks."
  • "The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya. Since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interest in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador's convoy. We cannot rule out that individuals had previously surveilled the US facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks."

One official, whose name was redacted from the email chain, responded to the changes: "They are fine with me. But, pretty sure HPSCI won't like them :-)" HPSCI refers to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, members of which had requested the talking points.

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