A top State Department official pressed the CIA and the White House to delete any mention of terrorism in public statements on the Benghazi terror attack to prevent critics from blaming lax security at the consulate, according to documents obtained by ABC News.
The information “goes right to the heart of what the White House continues to deny,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told USA TODAY. “For eight months they denied there’s any manipulation, but this continues to shed light on something that was never true.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement to USA TODAY on Friday that the changes were made to prevent members of Congress from “providing more guidance to the public than the administration.”
Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department, said she was expressing the concerns of her “leadership” when she emailed that a CIA memo on Benghazi should remove references to the attacks links to al-Qaeda and CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack.
According to ABC News, Nuland objected in an email to White House and intelligence officials that the CIA description “could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up on the State Department for not paying attention to warnings.”
The “talking points” memo on what the Obama administration should tell the public was the basis for statements made by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who appeared on talk shows five days after the Sept. 11 attack to explain what happened.
Rice insisted the attack emanated from a protest over an anti-Islam video produced in America that turned violent and that terrorism was not involved. The White House has since acknowledged the assault was a preplanned terror attack and no protest happened.
In the emails, the White House tells the CIA that State’s concerns needed to be addressed. Some of the emails were originally reported on by The Weekly Standard.
Psaki, in her statement, said Nuland’s office raised two primary concerns about the talking points.
“First that the points went further in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation,” Psaki said. “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.”
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said new information that came out this week shows that the Obama administration’s version of what happened in Benghazi was deliberately misleading.
“The narrative about the film was a lie. The narrative that it was not al Qaeda was a lie and the notion this was an attempt to protect anyone but Barack Obama is laughable,” Pletka said. “They could have nipped this in the bud on day two and there would be no investigation.”
ABC News obtained 12 versions of the talking points and reviewed State Department and White House emails that seem to show that references to terrorist involvement in Benghazi were not deleted at the request of the CIA or FBI, as Obama administration officials have said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters in November that the talking points “reflect the (intelligence community’s) best assessments of what they thought had happened.” The White House and State Department input was minor, to change the word “consulate” to “diplomatic post,” Carney said at the time.
The multiple edited versions tell a different story. The initial unclassified memo produced by the CIA for distribution to lawmakers and government officials — who were to use it to address the public – said extremists linked to al-Qaeda were known to be operating in Benghazi.
“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” the initial version said, describing a string of five attacks on foreign interests since April. “We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”
The paragraph was deleted.
The initial CIA memo also said the attack appeared to have been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo,” language that survived in the final version given to Rice. But it also said “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack,” and named the group Ansar al Sharia.
Nuland objected to naming the terrorist groups saying, “we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.”
A staffer at the White House National Security Council managing the review of the talking points wrote Nuland that “the FBI did not have major concerns with the points and offered only a couple minor changes.”
After some minor edits, Nuland objected again that “these changes don’t resolve all of my issues or those of my building’s leadership.” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisory in the White House, wrote on the morning of Sept. 14 that the State Department concerns should be addressed.
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation,” Rhodes wrote, adding that the document would be worked on the next morning.
After that meeting, the CIA produced a new and final version of the memo, with no reference to al Qaeda and the known security threats in Benghazi before Sept. 11.