Published December 20, 2015
The White House scrambled Friday to explain newly released email excerpts that show a top State Department official pushing to water down the intelligence community's initial story-line on the Benghazi attack, as Republicans sharply challenged the administration's honesty.
With new details emerging in the Benghazi-gate controversy, the White House held a background discussion with more than a dozen news organizations. Afterward, Press Secretary Jay Carney weathered a barrage of questions from the media during an at-times awkward White House briefing -- where he tried to defend the truthfulness of his and other officials' prior claims that the initial talking points on the attack reflected the best intelligence assessment of the time.
Carney lashed out at Republicans, accusing them of leaking the emails in an effort "to politicize this."
Further, he said: "These documents bear out what we've said all along."
But Carney was challenged on that point, repeatedly by reporters at Friday's briefing but also by substance of the email excerpts themselves.
The excerpts pertained to internal discussions in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the talking points that would be provided to officials.
Carney had claimed last year that the only adjustment the White House or State Department made to the language was to change the word "consulate" to "diplomatic facility."
But ABC News reported Friday that the talking points were revised 12 times. Initial versions, as has been previously reported, contained references to Al Qaeda that were later deleted. But the latest excerpts show how State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland pressed the CIA to scrub references to the agency's prior security warnings out of concern they could be used against her department.
According to ABC News, the original paragraph read:
"The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador's convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks."
But Nuland wrote that the lines "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned ..."
The paragraph in question was then reportedly deleted.
Pressed on that exchange, Carney continued to insist that the only change made by the White House pertained to the description of the post. As for what the State Department requested, Carney suggested the information about terror groups and prior security warnings had questionable relevance.
"The overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we're not giving to those who speak in public about these issues information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who is responsible, other things like warnings that may or may not be relevant," Carney said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also defended her agency's actions Friday, saying the department raised concern that "the points were inconsistent with the public language the Administration had used to date -- meaning members of Congress would be providing more guidance to the public than the Administration."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice would use those talking points as the basis for her controversial statements the Sunday after the attack that it was triggered by protests over an anti-Islam film.
Carney insisted Friday that the only statement to date that has turned out to be incorrect was the initial claim that there was a protest on the ground in Benghazi.
Whistle-blowers, though, ripped the administration over their response to the attack earlier this week, with one testifying that his "jaw dropped" after he heard Rice's comments on Sept. 16.
The Weekly Standard also reported on an email that then-CIA Director David Petraeus sent to the CIA's legislative affairs chief in which he reportedly expressed frustration at the administration's removal of all references to Islamic terrorists.
But Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that, while he respects those whistle-blowers who testified, the "prolonged political process .... really doesn't tell us anything new about the facts."
While administration officials and congressional Democrats have described the protracted debate over the talking points as politically motivated and inconsequential, the testimony this week opened the door to additional questions.
Greg Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya, said Rice's comments actually hurt the FBI investigation by insulting the Libyan president -- who gave a conflicting account at the time by saying the attack was premeditated.
Hicks said the anti-Islam film was actually a "nonevent" in Libya.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in an op-ed Friday that the hearing raised "new questions" about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's role in the initial description of the attack as "spontaneous."
ABC News reported that the CIA's first drafts did say the attack appeared to be "spontaneously inspired" by the protests at the embassy in Cairo. However, the early versions also said "we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa'ida participated in the attack."