Internal emails in the week following the 9-11 anniversary assault on the U.S. facility in Benghazi show the White House and State Department removed references to al Qaeda and the mention of other recent attacks in Benghazi from widely distributed talking points used to explain the incident to the public, according to a new report from five House Republican committee chairmen released Tuesday afternoon.
Citing administration emails provided to the House committees, the 46-page report claims that “to protect the State Department, the Administration deliberately removed references to al-Qaeda-linked groups and previous attacks in Benghazi in the talking points used by Ambassador Rice.”
While the report does not disclose in full the still-classified emails or the officials who wrote them, it does give the clearest account to date of how the official public statements in the days after September 11, 2012 from the Obama administration departed from the classified assessments of the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The story begins on Friday, September 14, when then-CIA director David Petraeus briefed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about the Benghazi attack three days earlier. The CIA’s notes for that briefing included information about five previous attacks on foreign interests in Benghazi since April 2012; potential links to the al Qaeda connected Libyan militia, Ansar al-Sharia; previous CIA assessments of groups linked to al Qaeda in eastern Libya; and information suggesting Islamic extremists participated in the attack, according to the report.
But then the editing process began later that day on September 14, “[w]hen draft talking points were sent to officials throughout the Executive Branch, [and] senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi,” the report charges. The report quotes one email saying there was concern that members of Congress would attack the State Department for “not paying attention to Agency warnings” regarding the mounting threat in Benghazi.
A meeting convened by the White House on Saturday suggested further edits to the talking points, according to the report. While a senior CIA official eventually changed the talking points, the report says those changes were made at the behest of the White House and the State Department. “Those edits struck any and all suggestions that the State Department had been previously warned of threats in the region, that there had been previous attacks in Benghazi by al-Qaeda-linked groups in Benghazi and eastern Libya, and that extremists linked to al-Qaeda may have participated in the attack on the Benghazi Mission,” according to the report.
On Sunday the new talking points were provided to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who based her comments about the attack on major Sunday news shows on September 16 on the newly edited talking points. Rice ended up suggesting that the lethal assault on the Benghazi compound was spurred by a demonstration against an anti-Muslim Internet video. The State Department’s own accountability review board eventually acknowledged last year that there was no demonstration the night the Benghazi compound was raided and set ablaze.
Rice’s appearance on those shows appeared to cost her a widely expected nomination as secretary of State, after Senate Republicans threatened to hold up the nomination because of her comments about Benghazi.
White House national security staff spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden dismissed the Republican authored report Tuesday. “The report just released by the House Republican Conference on Benghazi appears to raise questions that have already been asked and answered in great detail by the Administration,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We have taken extraordinary steps to work with five different committees in Congress in investigating what happened before, during, and after the Benghazi attacks.”
Hayden went on to say the Obama administration has provided more than 10,000 pages of documents, that senior officials have appeared before 10 Congressional hearings and that the administration has allowed members of Congress to view “classified video footage from the night of the attacks.”
The five ranking Democratic members of the committees who drafted the report sent a letter Tuesday to House Speaker John Boehner urging him to withdraw what they called a “partisan report.” The five lawmakers wrote, “Although staff reports may be appropriate in some circumstances, we do not believe a partisan staff report should be used in this case, which involves the death of a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans and is based on sensitive and classified national security information.”
Administration officials have told Congress and said publicly that one reason the talking points were changed was to protect classified information. The Republican report, however, said there was no evidence to support that charge. “There were no concerns about protecting classified information in the email traffic,” the report said.
The report also notes that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an April 19, 2012 cable offering a plan to scale back security assets for the U.S. missions in Libya, including Benghazi.
Administration officials have also said the talking points were purposefully vague in order to protect the integrity of the FBI’s investigation into the attacks. But a footnote in the report quotes an email from a senior State Department official saying that the Bureau “did not have major concerns” with the talking points, and only offered minor corrections.