The newly released White House Benghazi emails reveal the then CIA-Director David Petraeus strongly objected to the Obama administration’s version of events of the terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
David Petraeus, who was forced to resign in disgrace in November after an extra-marital affair with Paula Broadwell became public, wanted to see more detail made available, including a warning issued from the CIA about plans for an embassy attack.
The documents give a glimpse into the administration’s message control as officials carefully debated via email which details U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice should highlight when she went on talk shows five days later to discuss the September 11 assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The White House on Wednesday released 99 pages of emails and a single page of hand-written notes made by Petraeus’ deputy, Mike Morell, after a meeting at the White House the day before U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice began giving interviews to the media based on the agreed “talking points”.
On that page, Mike Morell scratched out from the CIA’s early drafts of talking points mentions of al-Qaeda, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” David Petraeus wrote after receiving Mike Morell’s edited version, developed after an intense back-and-forth among Obama administration officials.
“Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.”
Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that Mike Morell made the changes to the talking points because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the September 11th, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The officials said Mike Morell also didn’t think it was fair to disclose the CIA’s advance warning without giving Hillary Clinton’s State Department a chance to explain how it responded.
The officials spoke on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the emails on the record.
Officials said that Mike Morell acted on his own judgement and not with any pressure coming down from the State Department.
However, when David Petraeus received the final draft of the media talking points he was dismissive, saying that the reduced list would not satisfy the House Democrat who had asked for it.
“This is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” David Petraeus wrote, in reference to Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The White House released the emails to the media after some of them leaked on Friday and seemed to suggest that President Barack Obama’s national security team may have altered the talking points for political gain.
And while the White House claims these are all the correspondence that occurred in the aftermath of the terror attack on Benghazi, they suggest more of battle between the State Department and the CIA – rather than the president’s own team.
“In recent days, these e-mails have been selectively and inaccurately read out to the media,” said a White House spokesman, Eric Schultz.
Critics have highlighted an email by then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaeda would give congressional Republicans ammunition to attack the administration in the weeks before the presidential election. Fighting terror was one of President Barack Obama’s re-election strong points.
That email was among those released by the White House, sent by Victoria Nuland on September 14th at 7:39 p.m. to officials in the White House, State Department and CIA.
“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.
In another, Victoria Nuland sends the White House and intelligence officials an email warning that the talking points could be “abused” by opposition politicians “to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either?”.
The emails were shared with Congress earlier this year as a condition for allowing the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director to move forward.
The general counsel for the national intelligence director’s office briefed members and staff from the Senate Intelligence Committee and leadership on the emails on February 15th at a session in which staff could take notes.
A similar briefing took place March 19 for the House Intelligence Committee and leadership staff.
An interim report last month from the Republicans on five House committees criticized the Obama administration and mentioned the emails, but the issue exploded last Friday when new details emerged.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee read some of the emails aloud last Wednesday at a hearing with State Department officials.
The next day, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the White House to release the emails.
Congressional officials selectively shared parts of the emails, and new revelations emerged Friday that showed State Department and other administration officials pressing for references to terror groups and prior warnings to be deleted, expressing concerns about the political implications.
The White House released the full set of emails sent to Congress under the pressure in hopes of putting an end to the controversy that has dogged the administration for months.
The White House says congressional Republicans have misrepresented some of them.
The emails released by the White House were partially blacked out, including to remove names of senders and recipients who are career employees at the CIA and elsewhere.
The names were replaced with references to the office where they worked.
The talking points were used by Rice in her appearance on five news shows on Sunday, September 16, and also sent to Congress.
An official with the CIA’s office of congressional affairs whose name was blacked out sent the final version to David Petraeus on Saturday, September 15, at 12:51 p.m.
“As mentioned last night, State had voiced strong concerns with the original text due to the criminal investigation,” the official wrote.
David Petraeus responded at 2:27 saying he’d prefer not to even use them in that form.
But he said the decision was up to the White House’s national security staff.
“NSS’s call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman [Dutch] Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use. Regardless, thanks for the great work.”
C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
At a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said there has been “very, very substantial progress” in the investigation into who was responsible for the twin nighttime attacks in Benghazi.
Earlier this month, the FBI said it was seeking information on three people who were on the grounds of the diplomatic mission when it was attacked.
The FBI posted photographs of the three people and said they may be able to provide information to help in the investigation.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday’s release of the emails was a “wise choice”.
There was little in the roughly 100 pages of emails about Susan Rice’s “talking points” that had not been leaked previously.
While awkward for the White House, releasing the emails was an effort to counter complaints from Republicans and the media that President Barack Obama’s administration is secretive.
They included an email confirming perhaps the most damaging charge that administration officials removed mention from Susan Rice’s talking points that the CIA had warned of an al-Qaeda threat in the area of the eastern Libyan city before the attacks.
In the Benghazi emails, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns about references to intelligence about the threat from militants in eastern Libya.
Victoria Nuland wrote that she had “serious concerns” that the talking points would provide members of Congress with material to “beat the State Department for not paying attention to [Central Intelligence] Agency warnings” about threats in the region.
It was not clear who she was referring to but Republicans have tried to link former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2016, to the controversy over Benghazi.
“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,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.
Republicans say the talking points were an attempt to portray the attacks as arising from a spontaneous protest, and not an organized militant assault, so as to protect Barack Obama in last year’s presidential campaign from any charges that he was weak on fighting terrorism.
The White House vehemently denies any cover-up and emphasizes that the controversy over the talking points focuses on intelligence that eventually evolved. The emails, officials said, showed a normal back and forth between government agencies on a fluid national security event.
“Collectively these emails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House’s interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
Officials also suggested that Victoria Nuland was not the only one with concerns about the original talking points.