State Dep't sought to change Libya talking points

WASHINGTON (AP) — Political considerations

influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five

days after

the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State

Department and other senior administration officials asking that

references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted,

according to department emails.

The latest disclosures Friday raised new

questions about whether the Obama administration tried to play down any

terrorist

factor in the attack on a diplomatic compound just weeks before

the November presidential election. Ambassador Chris Stevens

and three other Americans were killed when insurgents struck the

U.S. mission in two nighttime attacks.

The White House has insisted that it made only a "stylistic" change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice

suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.

Numerous agencies had engaged in an email

discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of

Congress

and to Rice for their public comments. In one email, then-State

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect

of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamic

extremists in Benghazi.

Nuland's email said such revelations "could

be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not

paying attention

to (central intelligence) agency warnings," according to a

congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of emails.

The final talking points that weekend

reflected the work of several government agencies — CIA, FBI, State

Department, the

office of the Director of National Intelligence — apparently

determined to cast themselves in the best light as the investigation

was just getting underway.

A scathing independent report in December

found that "systematic failures and leadership and management

deficiencies at senior

levels" of the State Department meant that security was

"inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack

that took place."

Eight months after the attack, the

long-running and bitter dispute between the Obama administration and

congressional Republicans

on the subject shows no sign of abating. The GOP argues that the

administration deliberately tried to mislead Congress and

the American people. The White House insists that Republicans are

trying to politicize the issue.

"There's an ongoing effort to make something

political out of this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday of

the disclosure

of the emails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers.

"The problem with that effort is that it's never been clear

what it is they think they're accusing the administration of

doing."

Republicans have complained that the

administration was trying to conceal that the attack was the work of

terrorists and not

a protest over an anti-Islamic film that got out of hand. Such

revelations just before the election perhaps could have undercut

President Barack Obama's record on fighting terrorism, including

the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, one of his

re-election strengths.

The State Department emails and other

internal administration deliberations were summarized last month in an

interim investigative

report by Republicans on five House committees. New details about

political concerns and the names of the administration officials

who wrote the emails concerning the talking points emerged on

Friday.

Following Capitol Hill briefings in the days after the attack, members of Congress asked the CIA for talking points to explain

the assault, and the CIA under the direction of David Petraeus put together an assessment.

It said Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida took part in the attack, cited reports linking the attack to the group Ansar

al-Sharia, mentioned the experience of Libyan fighters and referred to previous warnings of threats in Benghazi.

The reference to al-Sharia was deleted, but

Nuland wrote later that night that changes she had seen "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.

She also wrote that she had serious concerns about giving information to members of Congress "to start making assertions to

the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the investigation."

Senior administration officials, including Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff at the State Department, and Ben Rhodes, the

White House deputy national security adviser, met that Saturday morning to finalize the talking points.

Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell worked with

the officials to produce a final set of talking points that deleted

mentions

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 still have

not been released.

The next day, Sunday, Sept. 16, Rice

appeared on the talk shows and said evidence gathered so far showed no

indication of

a premeditated or coordinated strike. She said the attack in

Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared

to be a copycat of demonstrations that had erupted hours earlier

outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, spurred by accounts of

a YouTube film attributed to a California man mocking the Prophet

Muhammad.

"In fact this was not a preplanned,

premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a

spontaneous reaction

to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the

video," she said. "People gathered outside the embassy, and then

it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray

and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite

common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of

control."

Administration officials said Friday they deleted the references to terror groups because it was then unclear — and still

is — who was responsible for the attack.

Rice's depiction of the chain of events contrasted with one offered by Libya's Interim President Mohammed el-Megarif, who

said at the time there was no doubt the perpetrators had predetermined the date of the attack.

"It was planned, definitely. It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago," el-Megarif

said. "And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival."

At a House hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Trey

Gowdy, R-S.C., read from an email he said was written by Beth Jones, the

State

Department official responsible for Near Eastern Affairs, the day

after the Benghazi attack that suggested the State Department

had at least some belief that the attack was the work of

terrorists.

According to Gowdy's reading, the Sept. 12,

2012, email by Jones said: "I spoke to the Libyan ambassador and

emphasized importance

of Libyan leaders continuing to make strong statements. ... When

he said his government suspected that former Gadhafi regime

elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that

conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with

Islamic terrorists."

The Republican lawmaker said the email by Jones was sent to a number of State Department officials, including Nuland.

Yet Rice still went on the Sunday talk shows several days later to "perpetuate a demonstrably false narrative," Gowdy said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the department reviewed the talking points on Friday, Sept. 14, and

raised two primary concerns.

"First, that the points went further in

assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested and

there was concern

about preserving the integrity of the investigation. Second, 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."

An official familiar with the emails said

former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was unaware of Nuland's

concerns

about the talking points. The official spoke on condition of

anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter

publicly.

The White House has long maintained that it

played a minimal role in crafting the talking points, pinning that

process on

intelligence agencies. The White House also said it made just one

"stylistic" change to the talking points, which was to change

the reference to the Benghazi compound from a "consulate" to a

"diplomatic mission."