President Barack Obama called on Congress to “fully fund” his request to bolster security at U.S. diplomatic outposts as he sought to contain political fallout from last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama used a White House news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan today to urge the cooperation of Congress, where House Republicans are conducting multiple hearings on the attack and the administration’s response.
His plea came a day after the White House released almost 100 pages of e-mails showing the internal debate about how to characterize the Sept. 11, 2012 assault on a U.S. facility in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
“We need to come together and truly honor the sacrifices of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said.
The White House is confronting simultaneous controversies involving the Benghazi attack, Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of political groups and the Justice Department’s subpoena of Associated Press telephone records in a leak investigation.
Republicans have accused the administration of failing to protect U.S. personnel as the Benghazi attack unfolded and then tailoring what was said publicly about it to deflect criticism of Obama in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign.
Some Democrats have countered by saying Republicans repeatedly cut funding requests from the State Department for security.
Obama said he’s putting in effect recommendations of an independent review board convened in response to the Benghazi incident.
“But we’re not going to be able to do this alone,” Obama said about embassy security. “We’re going to need Congress as a partner.”
In his budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Obama proposed $2.2 billion for building projects to improve security at diplomatic facilities. The funding is part of a $4.4 billion budget request for security staff, construction and infrastructure upgrades in fiscal 2014, a $996 million increase from fiscal 2012.
The documents released by the White House yesterday capture two days of internal discussion among Obama staff members, the CIA and the State Department over what to include in talking points about the Benghazi attack.
The e-mail traffic and the resulting talking points have become a point of contention between the administration and congressional Republicans, who contend they show politically motivated attempts to down play the involvement of terrorist groups.
In the end, the talking points were so pared down, from six bullet points to three, that then-Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus suggested they be discarded.
The e-mails reveal a process where the agency made major revisions to the talking points, after receiving input from its staff and objections from the State Department, before delivering the finished version to Congress and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. An initial assertion that “Islamic extremists with links al-Qaeda” were involved in in the attack was changed to a suggestion that “extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
The White House has insisted that it made only “stylistic” changes to an account originally drafted by the CIA.
Yesterday’s document release had been sought by Republican lawmakers. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the Benghazi e-mails don’t contradict the conclusions of an interim House report. That examination said that the State Department sought changes to avoid criticism that it didn’t heed warnings of extremist threats.
“The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them,” Buck said by e-mail.
The administration e-mails reveal how the drafting of a document originally requested by Congress quickly involved several government departments. Roughly six hours after the first draft was sent from the CIA to the White House on Sept. 14, one agency official wrote to another that the coordination process had run “into major problems.”
“A number of agencies have been looped in,” reads the e-mail, sent from the CIA official, whose name is redacted in the documents. “The White House has cleared quickly, but State has major concerns.”
In a briefing for reporters, the officials described the inter-agency process that produced the talking points as routine. Many of the State Department’s concerns were raised contemporaneously, and independently, by Michael Morell, deputy director at the CIA, according to one official, who asked not to be identified in describing the previously classified documents.
The documents show the talking points changing as they march through government agencies, shepherded by Morell, who makes the final edits. One page of the documents shows a copy of the talking points after edits from Morell, striking more than half of the sentences.
While some of Morell’s objections, such as the inclusion of previous warnings by the CIA about extremists in eastern Libya, were shared by the State Department, Morell arrived at his concerns independently, according to one official.
He removed a sentence that indicated the CIA “had produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” because it could have laid some of the blame for inadequately protecting Americans at the State Department, without giving its staff the opportunity to respond, according to one official.
At the same time, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised similar objections.
“I have serious concerns about all the parts highlighted below, and arming 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,” she wrote.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department and FBI will be prepared soon to release the results of their inquiry into how the four Americans died. “We have made very, very, very substantial progress in that investigation,” Holder told lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Morell made other changes to the talking points to ensure that they didn’t include any details that could have impeded the FBI’s investigation, according to the officials.
In the end, the pared-down talking points left CIA’s Petraeus disappointed.
“Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this,” he wrote after reviewing the talking points on the afternoon of Sept. 15. “This is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” he said, referring to Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Intelligence Committee Democrat.
While the administration officials said that final changes were made by Morell after a brief discussion at a deputies’ meeting on the morning of Sept. 15, an e-mail from an unidentified official in Rice’s office suggests otherwise.
“Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them,” read an e-mail from an official whose name was redacted for security reasons.
That contention was disputed by administration officials at the White House news briefing. Morell didn’t discuss the talking points in detail at the meeting, according one administration official.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings on the matter last week and Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said “more hearings and more information” are to come.