WASHINGTON -- 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.