WASHINGTON – The White House released 100 pages of emails Wednesday designed to defuse GOP claims of a coverup over the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last year that killed four Americans.
The documents show the development of the White House’s narrative in the frantic days after the attack on Sept. 11 last year that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. They were released as President Barack Obama battled GOP charges that his aides, concerned about damage to his re-election campaign, played down the idea that the attack was an organized operation by terrorists.
Initially, the White House publicly blamed the attack on a spontaneous protest rather than on organized extremists in Libya, who it later emerged were involved.
The correspondence details a spirited debate between top U.S. officials in several agencies about how to publicly describe the attack, and its causes, to members of Congress and the press.
It appears to show that the CIA, and not senior White House and State Department officials, took the lead in developing the talking points and in omitting key information about possible action by extremists.
CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell is also seen removing references to al-Qaida, and Libya-based extremists linked to the group, from the talking points, later used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on television talk shows.
Republicans had claimed the White House had scrubbed mentions of al-Qaida to spare Obama from embarrassment as he ran a re-election campaign heavily reliant on his claim that he had neutralized the terrorist groups.
Also in early versions of the talking points, developed on Sept. 14 and 15, was a warning about references to previous attacks on foreigners in Benghazi and a suggestion that extremists had surveyed U.S. facilities. That bullet point was also missing from the final version of the document.
Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s top spokeswoman at the time, had warned in one email that the inclusion of such a statement would be “abused” by members of Congress to claim her agency ignored warnings of an impending attack. But the emails make clear that then-CIA Director David Petraeus did not agree with the final version of the talking points. “I’d just as soon not use this, then,” Petraeus wrote in an email.
The correspondence also appears to suggest that officials erred on the side of caution, in the confusing hours after the attacks, on the question of whether it was planned and carried out by extremists.
In one email, a CIA official warns his counterparts in other agencies that due to an ongoing criminal investigation, no public assessments should be made into who was responsible. Following that exchange, references to al-Qaida or affiliated groups being involved were removed.
Obama’s critics on Capitol Hill said that the release of the documents did not end questions about the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, said the emails backed up a House interim report that noted the State Department’s anxiety about the talking points.
“The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them,” Buck said. “This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the Administration has still refused to produce.”
But White House spokesman Eric Shultz said the document release should end the controversy over the talking points.
“You can now see what the Congress has seen — collectively these emails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House’s interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation,” he said. “After 11 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and now this release, we can hopefully spend our time working on what’s important — what we can do together to ensure those serving their nation overseas are better protected than they were last September.”