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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Benghazi Attack, Revisited

President Obama says the May 8 House hearing on Benghazi and subsequent reporting about it produced no new information. That’s largely the case, but the president misrepresented some facts at his May 13 press conference in dismissing the House investigation as a “political circus.”

  • Obama said Republicans acted “as if there’s something new to the story” about the talking points used by an administration official to discuss Benghazi on the Sept. 16, 2012, Sunday talk shows. But this much is new: We learned that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney falsely claimed the White House and State Department made no substantive changes to the talking points. Extensive revisions were made after State raised objections and after a White House meeting.
  • The president also said “congressional committees” reviewed emails “several months ago” regarding changes to the talking points, and they “concluded that, in fact, there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used.” There was no such conclusion. Obama was referring to a February closed-door meeting in which senators viewed the emails as part of John Brennan’s confirmation. Some senators were satisfied and some weren’t. Sen. Marco Rubio, in fact, said a review of the emails “raises other questions with regard to process.”
  • Obama said he used the term “act of terrorism” a day after the attack. Not exactly. He said “acts of terror” and “act of terror.” Also that day, the president said he did not use the word “terrorism” because “it’s too early to know exactly how this came about.” Over the next several days, he would repeat that the attack began as a protest of an anti-Muslim video and spiraled out of control.

Changes to the Talking Points

The White House and Republicans have been at odds for nearly eight months over the talking points used by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when she appeared on several Sunday talk shows five days after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi. Rice used talking points written by the CIA that said the attack — which killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens — started “spontaneously” as a protest.

Rice, for example, told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sept. 16 that the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi began “spontaneously … as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy — sparked by this hateful video.” She was referring to a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where demonstrators scaled the walls and removed a U.S. flag in protest of an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.

But Rice’s claim about a spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi proved to be false. Many Republicans — including Sen. John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee in 2008 — have charged the White House with engaging in an election-year cover-up by blaming the anti-Muslim video for the Benghazi attack, rather than acknowledging it was a premeditated terrorist attack carried out on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

It’s important to note that all the evidence — then and now — shows that the talking points always said that the attack grew out of a spontaneous demonstration in response to the Cairo protests. That was in the original draft of the talking points, and it remained in the final draft. There has been no evidence showing an election-year cover-up.

It has been known since at least late November that Rice’s talking points were changed. CBS News reported on Nov. 20, 2012, that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — not the White House nor the State Department — removed references to al Qaeda and terrorism from talking points given to Rice. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security issued a bipartisan report on Dec. 30, 2012, confirming that the talking points had been changed, and that the White House and State Department were not involved. But the report also said that it failed to get a “full account” of what changes were made, who made them and why — despite “repeated requests” for that information.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly has said that the White House and State Department changed only one word of the talking points.

Carney, Nov. 28, 2012: The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two — of these two institutions were changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility,” because “consulate” was inaccurate. Those talking points originated from the intelligence community. They reflect the IC’s best assessments of what they thought had happened.

That has been proven demonstrably false — first by a May 3 report in the Weekly Standard and later by a more detailed May 10 report by ABC News. Both news reports show the CIA made many deletions and alterations in response to State Department comments, including removing references to other recent attacks on “foreign interests” in Benghazi and a reference to the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia group as possibly being involved.

On May 8, the day of the House committee hearing on Benghazi, Carney was asked about the Weekly Standard report. He reiterated his statement that White House involvement was minimal when asked, “Were you incorrect when you said that only a single word had been changed?”

Carney, May 8: No, I was not. I think what remains the case is that the intelligence community, CIA, drafted these talking points and redrafted these talking points. The fact that there are inputs is always the case in a process like this. But the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and non-substantive. They corrected the description of the building or the facility in Benghazi from “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” and the like.

Carney may be technically correct to say the CIA was the entity that “drafted” and “redrafted” the talking points — a House GOP report on the matter said, “The actual edits were made by a current high-ranking CIA official.” But the Weekly Standard and ABC News reports describe how changes were made after the State Department objected. To say that the State Department made a “single adjustment” to the wording, as Carney claimed, is misleading at best. It glosses over the State Department’s extensive involvement in the editing process.

ABC News published 12 drafts of the talking points. All of the drafts say the attack began “spontaneously” in response to a violent protest in Cairo (which was sparked by the anti-Muslim video). But the original CIA talking points said, “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.” And they said that “[i]nitial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia.”

The final draft, used by Rice, in her appearances on political talk shows on Sept. 16, 2012, would only say that “extremists participated.” Rice, reflecting the talking points, said it wasn’t clear if al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates were involved.

ABC News — based on reporter Jonathan Karl’s review of administration emails and the drafts of the talking points –reported that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland objected to including the names of terrorist groups, saying “we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.”

ABC News also reported that the emails — which were released by the administration five days later on May 15 — showed “the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points,” including the removal of a reference to CIA warnings of al Qaeda-linked threats in Benghazi.

ABC News, May 10: Summaries of White House and State Department emails — some of which were first published by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard — show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland raised specific objections to this paragraph drafted by the CIA in its earlier versions of the talking points:

“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”

In an email to officials at the White House and the intelligence agencies, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland took issue with including that information because it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned …”

The paragraph was entirely deleted.

That paragraph was deleted after a Saturday morning meeting at the White House. ABC News later updated its report to say that “a source familiar with the White House emails” said that Nuland was concerned that the talking points went beyond what she could say at State Department briefings and that, ABC News said, “she believed the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department’s expense by suggesting CIA warnings about the security situation were ignored.”

Despite all this, Carney stuck to his story in a May 10 press briefing on the day ABC News published its report. Reporters peppered him with questions about how he could describe these changes as “stylistic and non-substantive.” He repeatedly said that it was the CIA that made the changes, and that the only edit made by the White House was the “consulate”/”diplomatic facility” change. Carney said it was standard procedure for there to be “inputs” from various agencies.

Carney, May 10: And the only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the CIA was a change from — referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi, from “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post.” I think I had referred to it as “diplomatic facility.” I think it may have been “diplomatic post.”

But the point being, it was a matter of non-substantive/factual correction. But there was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this, and is always appropriate. And the effort is always to, in that circumstance, with an ongoing investigation and a lot of information — some of it accurate, some of it not, about what had happened and who was responsible — to provide information for members of Congress and others in the administration, for example, who might speak publicly about it that was based on only what the intelligence community could say for sure it thought it knew. And that is what was generated by the intelligence community, by the CIA.

Carney pointed to the Ansar al-Sharia information as speculative at the time, or information that the CIA “could not be concretely sure of.” And indeed, the original CIA talking points said that “initial press reporting” linked the group to the attack. “The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved,” the original draft said.

Carney also said that the State Department’s objections had to do with the talking points going further “in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested, and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation. That concern was expressed in other quarters, not just at the State Department.”

But Carney’s initial statement about a “single adjustment” gave a false impression about the State Department’s role in developing the final talking points.

Congressional Review of Changes to Talking Points

Asked if “newly public emails show that the White House and the State Department appear to have been more closely involved with the crafting of the talking points on the attack than first acknowledged,” the president said “congressional committees” reviewed those same emails and concluded there was “nothing afoul.”

Obama, May 13: And the emails that you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees. They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that, in fact, there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story. There’s no “there” there.

We asked the White House what congressional committees came to that conclusion and when, because, as we briefly noted earlier, the Senate report on Benghazi said the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee did not receive “a full account of the changes made to the talking points, by whom they were made and why.” The committee sought a timeline of the changes, but the report said it “has not been delivered as promised because the Administration has spent weeks debating internally whether or not it should turn over information considered ‘deliberative’ to the Congress.”

In response to our request, the White House referred us to a closed-door meeting on Feb. 26 attended by Senate Intelligence Committee members, who were allowed to review the emails as part of their consideration of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director. Specifically, the White House noted that GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said after the meeting that the review of the emails “answers a lot, if not all, of the questions that the committee [had] from an oversight standpoint.” It also noted that Brennan was confirmed.

But Burr’s opinion wasn’t shared by all on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who worked on the Senate’s Benghazi report with Sen. Joe Lieberman, attended that meeting. She said after the meeting: “I still have many concerns and believe there’s still gaps in the information.” Rubio, another Republican on Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “I think it raises other questions with regard to process.”

Collins appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on May 12, and she was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley whether she learned anything new about Benghazi. “I did learn something new,” she said. “There were further iterations and changes in the talking points than I’ve been aware of.”

Obama and ‘Act of Terror’

At his press conference, Obama expressed frustration with those who label the administration’s initial response to the attack a “cover-up.” He said, “The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.”

Not quite. The president, in remarks Sept. 12 in the Rose Garden, used the term “acts of terror.” The president said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” Later that night, he used the term “act of terror” at a campaign event in Las Vegas.

Between the morning speech and the evening fundraiser, Obama spoke to CBS News reporter Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” Kroft noted that “you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya attack.” Obama said, “Right.” Asked why, the president said that “it’s too early to know exactly how this came about.”

Even after his director of the National Counterterrorism Center labeled the incident a “terrorist attack,” Obama declined to call it that at a town hall meeting on Sept. 20 and during a taping of “The View” on Sept. 24. He also appeared Sept. 18 on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” where he blamed the anti-Muslim video for the attack in Benghazi. “Extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the consulate in Libya,” he said. (For more details, see our extensive timeline of the Benghazi attack.)

As we said in our timeline, the Obama administration displayed an abundance of caution when publicly discussing the possibility of a premeditated terrorist attack — but did not show that same level of caution when saying without any evidence that the attack in Benghazi started as a spontaneous demonstration of an anti-Muslim video.

Update, May 16: This article was updated to reflect that the Obama administration released 100 pages of emails regarding changes to the talking points used by Rice on the Sept. 16 Sunday talk shows.

– Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson