WASHINGTON – Senior State Department officials pressed for changes in the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used after the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya last September, expressing concerns that Congress might criticize the Obama administration for ignoring warnings of a growing threat in Benghazi.
An interim report by Republicans on five House committees last month had detailed how the talking points were changed, days after the Sept. 11 attack and in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign. New details about the political concerns and the names of the administration officials who wrote emails concerning the talking points emerged on Friday.
The White House has insisted that it made only stylistic changes to the intelligence agency talking points in which Rice suggested that protests over an anti-Islamic video set off the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Before the presidential election, the administration said Rice's talking points were based on the best intelligence assessments available in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
But the report and the new details Friday suggest a greater degree of White House and State Department involvement.
The latest developments are certain to add fuel to the politically charged debate over Benghazi. Republicans have suggested that the Obama administration sought to play down the possibility of terrorism during the campaign and has misled the country. A senior administration official reiterated Friday that the talking points were based on intelligence assessments and developed during an interagency process, which included the CIA, officials from the Director of National Intelligence, State Department, FBI and the Justice Department.
The official commented only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation
Last Sept. 14, two days before Rice's appearance, the CIA's initial draft of the talking points referred to Islamic extremists taking part in the attack in Benghazi, possible links to Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, a CIA assessment of threats from extremists linked to al-Qaida and a mention of five previous attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.
A congressional official who reviewed 100 pages of emails and the 12 pages of talking points said former State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concerns about the talking points, writing that they "could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why would we want to seed the Hill."
The reference to al-Sharia was deleted, but Nuland wrote later that night, "these don't resolve all my issues and those of my building leadership, they are consulting with NSS," a reference to the National Security staff within the White House.
A meeting of senior officials was convened on Saturday morning after the attack to work on the talking points and they included officials from the White House, State Department and CIA.
Deleted from the final talking points were mention of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya and Islamic extremists, according to the congressional official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the emails that have not been released.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.