How Petraeus Turned the CIA into the Good Guys in Benghazi

How did the CIA become the hero in the Benghazi talking point controversy? And if the CIA is part of Team Obama, why hasn't it enjoyed as much scrutiny as everyone else involved? One reason is the political skills of David Petraeus, as behind-the-scenes emails continue to reveal.

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How did the CIA become the hero in the Benghazi talking point controversy? The Republican theory of the case is that the CIA provided mostly correct talking points (with one big flaw — it blamed spontaneous protests), which the State Department and the White House then edited into misleading mush to protect President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, of course, the CIA is part of the Obama administration, too, and run by Obama appointees — why hasn't it enjoyed as much scrutiny as everyone else involved?

One reason is the political skills of David Petraeus, then-director of the CIA. The Benghazi talking points came into existence because Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger asked for guidelines for the newer members of the House intelligence committee, so they wouldn't accidentally reveal classified information in interviews with the press, The Washington Post's Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung report. "A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus's early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee's request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency." As has been widely noted, Petraeus was unenthusiastic about the final talking points, writing:

"No mention of the cable to Cairo, either? Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then... [National Security Council] call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use."

But Ruppersberger tells the Post, "I'm not sure what he meant. I had no expectations."

The earliest emails, the Post explains, show Petraeus trying to protect the CIA from recriminations. After morning coffee with Petraeus on September 14, the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis sent an internal CIA email saying the intelligence committee had asked for talking points. "I have been asked to provide a bit on responsibility," the office's director said, including "warnings we gave to Cairo prior to the demonstration, as well as material on warnings we issued prior to 9/11 anniversary." Even within the CIA, there was conflict over how to align what Petraeus wanted with what the intelligence committee asked for. The initial draft included references to Ansar al Sharia, and the CIA's general counsel, Stephen W. Preston, warned that "in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this." But Ansar al Sharia stayed in the draft sent to other agencies.

The State Department objected to including the terror warnings, and CIA deputy director Mike Morell took them out. But Petraeus's staff sent a worried email to Morell, saying Petraeus needed to know "what is going to the Hill in his name." That's when Petraeus weighed in.

The CIA has been quite effective in limiting the public discussion of its role in Benghazi. The existence of the CIA annex — where two people died in the second round of attacks in September — was classified. It wasn't clear till a month after the attacks that the Benghazi post was mostly CIA, that two-thirds of the people evacuated were agency employees. CNN's Jake Tapper reports that the State Department strongly objected to the talking points because it "felt it was being blamed for bungling what it saw as largely a CIA operation in Benghazi." And Tapper suggests the CIA was going CYA, too: "Current and former U.S. government officials tell CNN that... Petraeus may have been reluctant to conclude it was a planned attack because that would have been acknowledging an intelligence failure." There was a big debate within the CIA to even reveal that two Navy SEALs who died in Benghazi were CIA employees, and Petraeus didn't attend their funerals.

There was another big debate at the White House, Buzzfeed's Michael Hastings reports, over releasing a multi-agency report of the Benghazi timeline, and while White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is already coming under scrutiny for her advice not to release a report at all, the CIA pushed back, too. Deputy National Security Advisor Benjaming "Rhodes and others would privately say that their hands were somewhat tied in the public response due to the fact that there was such a large CIA presence in Benghazi," Hastings writes, "but other than that felt the had nothing to hide in how they responded to the crisis, especially."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.