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Inside the Latest Benghazi Emails: No One Knew Much of Anything

Eli Lake sifts through 100 pages of newly released documents—and finds more questions than answers.

Four days after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the U.S. intelligence community knew very little about who did it, how it happened, and whether it was planned or not, according to 100 pages of internal emails released Wednesday afternoon by the White House.

Those emails provide the clearest record to date of the genesis of government-wide talking points for senior Obama administration officials that asserted that the Benghazi attacks stemmed from a demonstration that never occurred.

House Republicans have been calling for weeks for the White House to release the emails, claiming in a report issued last month from Republican leadership that the emails show the edits to the talking points were not done to protect classified information as the White House initially claimed.

The talking points were first generated by the CIA for a briefing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Nonetheless, the emails themselves raise more questions than they answer. For example, there is extensive discussion on the evening of September 14 about whether the talking points should mention Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist militia the original CIA draft stated was a likely participant in the attacks. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman at the time, asked whether or not mentioning the group would prejudice the investigation, and the FBI in later emails did not object. Still, the final version excised the reference to Ansar al-Sharia as well as a reference to Facebook posts the group had created suggesting a link to the attacks.

Nor do the emails provide a record of the secure video teleconference from September 15 in which the decisions were ultimately made on what the final version of the talking points would look like. Senior government officials such as the State Department’s director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, participated in the teleconference.

The assertion that the attacks were a spontaneous revolt sparked by demonstrations in Cairo that day against an anti-Muslim Internet video was in the original CIA draft of the talking points and the final version as well.

What stands out from the 100 pages of email is just how little the U.S. intelligence community actually knew about the Benghazi attacks during the development of the talking points. One email, for example, from an official at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) dated September 15 says, “As time progresses, we are learning more, but we still don’t have a complete picture of what happened.” The same email goes on to say, “At this point, we are not aware of any actionable intelligence that this attack was planned or imminent. The intelligence community is combing through reporting from before and after the attack to determine the full extent of who was involved.”

Despite the caution from the NCTC, the final talking points ended up asserting that the attacks stemmed from a demonstration that never happened. The mistake is all the more glaring in light of testimony last week from Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on the night of the attacks. He told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Benghazi was an act of terrorists on the evening of the attack. Indeed, Hicks said the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli believed it would be attacked by terrorists that evening as well.