Under Pressure, the White House Releases More Than 100 Pages of Benghazi E-Mails

National Journal

The White House, in an effort to calm the swirl of controversy about the reaction to last year's attacks on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, late Wednesday released more than 100 pages of e-mails leading to the development of talking points that attempted to explain the violence that left four Americans dead. The e-mails had earlier been shown to members of Congress but the White House had resisted releasing them, citing the precedent of protecting internal discussions within an administration.

But with no sign of the controversy abating and increasing leaks of snippets to the media, the White House decided to release them, with only some names and e-mail addresses redacted.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the White House decided to release the full e-mails because so many of them had been "selectively and inaccurately read out to the media" in recent days. "You can see now," he said, "what the Congress has seen -- collectively these e-mails 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."

Senior administration officials contend that the e-mails, involving senior officials in multiple agencies and departments, show that the key changes in the talking points were made by the Central Intelligence Agency and not, as charged by critics, by the White House and the State Department.

A senior intelligence official said that the changes were made by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell independently, although they tracked with those requested by State.

The CIA originally wrote talking points, and the memos released Wednesday show that from the start they linked the attack in Benghazi and the violent demonstrations occurring in Cairo and other cities over Muslim outrage at a YouTube video seen as insulting to Islam. The first draft said the attacks "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex." That draft also stated that the conclusions could change "as additional information is collected and analyzed."

Another change that has attracted heavy attention from Republicans in Congress was the removal of a warning about the security situation in Benghazi. The e-mails show that Victoria Nuland, who was then the spokeswoman for State, objected to the inclusion of that warning. She said that it "could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either?"

But the senior intelligence official said Morell independently wanted that warning dropped before he knew of Nuland's objections. They said Morell intended the talking points to deal with the actual events in Benghazi on Sept. 11 and not on what happened before that date. Officials also said he felt its inclusion would be unprofessional.

The talking points have achieved a life of their own almost from the moment U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice based her comments on them when she appeared on television news shows the Sunday after the attacks. They the House Intelligence Committee had also requested them for use on news shows.

"The House interim report found that "˜senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi,' and that those changes were ultimately made. Those findings are confirmed by the e-mails released today, and they contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points." said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, in a statement. "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. This release is long overdue, and there are relevant documents the administration has still refused to produce. We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come."

Another point the officials said the CIA changed during the back-and-forth with other agencies was one that stated the attackers were "a mix of individuals from across many sections of Libyan society" and that it was not known if Islamic extremists, perhaps linked to al-Qaida, were involved. But officials said the CIA raised an objection, stating that outstripped what was known at the time. The language was changed so as to not blame extremists for the attacks. The talking point became, "The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. The investigation is ongoing as to who is responsible. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."

Officials said the specific reference to al-Qaida was dropped because the CIA feared harming the FBI investigation.