Obama administration officials insisted that the White House and State Department had a minor role in altering an erroneous account of a deadly attack on a U.S. compound in Libya last year, after internal e-mails surfaced indicating it was shaped by political concerns.
“The White House involvement was very limited and non-substantive,” Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s spokesman, told reporters yesterday. “The talking points reflect the intelligence community assessment of what happened.”
The account, used by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Sunday television talk shows days after the Sept. 11 attack, went through at least 12 versions with input from administration officials, according to e-mails cited yesterday by ABC News.
The talking points erroneously portrayed the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans as growing out of a “spontaneous” protest against an anti-Islamic video, a demonstration that was hijacked by extremists. The administration later acknowledged the account was incorrect.
While Republicans have said the talking points were tailored to deflect criticism in the weeks before last year’s presidential election, the administration has insisted that it made only “stylistic” changes to an account originally drafted by the Central Intelligence Agency. The e-mails cited by ABC showed extensive revisions.
Administration officials didn’t question the accuracy of the e-mails, while describing them as normal give-and-take in preparing an account that was initially requested by lawmakers.
In one exchange, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, objected to a passage in the CIA draft that said the agency had warned repeatedly of “the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” including “at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants.”
Such information “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?” Nuland said in an e-mail to the White House and intelligence agencies. The paragraph she challenged was deleted.
The original draft by the CIA included the incorrect portrayal of the attack as having been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” over the anti-Islamic video. It also said that “Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda participated in the attack,” citing the group Ansar al-Sharia.
Nuland urged removing references to the terrorist group, saying it could “prejudice the investigation.” After more revisions, Nuland said the changes didn’t resolve “all of my issues or those of my buildings leadership,” according to ABC.
Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona for months have portrayed the administration’s account of the attack as intentionally misleading.
“I’ve known it was a cover-up for a long time,” McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said in an interview this week. “The narrative of the presidential campaign was that Osama bin Laden was dead, al-Qaeda was ‘on the run,’ decimated, and this act obviously was only from a spontaneous demonstration.”
Republican criticism of the account reflects continuing “attempts to politicize a tragedy that took four American lives,” said Carney, the White House spokesman.
Administration officials defended their editing process, saying that the talking points were crafted just four days after the attack as intelligence agencies were still sorting through information about the cause and perpetrators. They said they wanted to be cautious in public comments to avoid influencing the investigation that was under way.
“All of this information was provided months ago to members of Congress,” Carney said. “We’re now seeing it resurface together with sort of political assertions by Republicans that ignore the basic facts here.”