Obama aides scramble to defend edits to Benghazi talking points


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Obama administration insisted Friday that it acted in good faith and not to protect itself when it eliminated references to al Qaida and an allied group in talking points about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Pointing out that the talking points were originally intended for lawmakers, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted Friday that the intelligence community was still gathering facts at the time and wanted to stick to what it knew – though administration emails obtained by ABC News showed the State Department raising objections to some of the language because of fear it would be “abused” by Congress.

“The overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we’re not giving . . . information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible,” Carney said. “The talking points were focused on what we knew and not speculation about what may or may not have been responsible or related.”

At the State Department, spokesman Patrick Ventrell stressed that the talking points were an interagency effort, led by the CIA, and that they referenced a militant attack from the beginning.

The changes recommended by the State Department – via then-spokeswoman Victoria Nuland – were made because the original draft went further in assigning blame for the attacks than officials were comfortable with so early in the investigation, he said. The State Department first reviewed the points the Friday after the attacks, he said.

Ventrell accused members of Congress of “cherry picking” excerpts from the correspondence, taking points out of context. “What was clear throughout was that extremists were involved in the attack, and we were clear about that,” Ventrell said.

The talking points were given to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whose appearance on five Sunday television shows days after the assault sparked claims that the administration was looking to mislead the public with an erroneous account blaming the assault on protesters enraged by a crude online anti-Islamic video, and not terrorists.

The CIA’s first drafts did say the attack appeared to have been inspired by protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, ABC reported. The U.S. intelligence community earlier took responsibility for wanting a reference to al Qaida dropped from talking points provided to Rice before the shows.

And Carney said that Rice did talk about the possibility that al Qaida, or other affiliates or Libyan extremists, were involved, “which I think demonstrates that there was no effort to play that down. It was simply a reflection of we did not, and the intelligence community did not, jump to conclusions about who was responsible before we had an investigation to find out the facts.”

Carney defended his insistence that the White House only made “stylistic and non-substantive” edits to the final version of the talking points – changing the name of the facility that was attacked from “consulate” to “diplomatic post.”

The revelations of emails suggesting White House and State Department involvement capped a week marked by dramatic testimony of the attack in a hearing convened by congressional Republicans who have accused the administration of a coverup.

The White House scrambled Friday to make its case, postponing its daily briefing by several hours to give a select group of reporters a private briefing. McClatchy was not invited.

Carney accused congressional Republicans of leaking the emails and of looking to further politicize the attacks, noting that members of Congress had been privy to the emails since late February. That was soon after Republicans threatened to block John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s CIA nominee, unless the administration provided more details about the Sept. 11 attack.

“It’s only now for what I think is reflective of ongoing attempts to politicize a tragedy that took four American lives that we’re now seeing it resurface together with sort of political assertions by Republicans that ignore the basic facts here,” Carney said.

House Speaker John Boehner has called on the White House to release the emails “so the American people can judge for themselves how the administration handled the aftermath of the Benghazi attack.”

Carney refused the request, saying Boehner was “asking for emails that they’ve already seen, that they were able to review.”

He said the talking points were developed as a response to a request from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to the CIA.

“And that process, as is always the case, led by the CIA, involved input from a variety of agencies with an interest in or a stake in the process,” Carney said.

Ventrell defended the final talking points, saying they were based on “the best intelligence assessments at the time,” which indicated the possibility of a demonstration.

The first draft of the talking points, now made public via ABC and other news organizations, makes it clear that the CIA was aware of the militant threat in eastern Libya and that the State Department sought to remove references of such extremist activity, apparently to shield the department from potential criticism that it ignored known threats and well-documented previous attacks on foreign diplomatic targets.

Ventrell said he wasn’t authorized to talk about the State Department’s private exchanges with the CIA on the matter, but that the process wasn’t much different from other instances in which “emergency talking points” must be drafted. He described a collaborative process about “not only the best language to use, but the best tactics in terms of explaining what we’re talking about.”

The eight-month anniversary of the attacks is Saturday, and Carney said Obama remains confident the perpetrators will be caught.

“I think this president has a record to prove it, that he will keep focused on this until those who are responsible are brought to justice,” Carney said.

Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email:lclark@mcclatchydc.com; twitter@lesleyclark

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