The White House came under fire Friday for its response the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, with new revelations that the administration scrubbed talking points in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
The release of 12 versions of Benghazi talking points Friday by ABC News reveals that the Obama administration and the State Department heavily edited the talking points to remove references to Al Qaeda-linked groups, as well as to the CIA’s previous warnings about the extremist threat in Libya.
The new information directly contradicts the White House’s previous claims that the talking points were crafted and edited by the CIA according to the intelligence assessments at the time. And the report appears to lend credibility to the theory that the Obama administration tried to cover up its security failures — and the fact that the assault was a terrorist attack — for political reasons.
But the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler offers an alternative — and in our view, more credible — explanation for why the administration edited down the talking points, suggesting that the emails reveal a “bureaucratic knife fight” that pitted the State Department against the CIA.
As Kessler correctly points out, the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was basically a covert CIA operation — a fact that Congressional investigators have had to dance around as they proceed with their Benghazi witch-hunt.
But the talking points originally developed by the CIA at the request of the House Intelligence Committee downplay the agency’s role in Benghazi, and reference past warnings about the threat of extremists in eastern Libya — implying that it was the State Department, rather than the intelligence community, that screwed up.
Here’s the relevant passage:
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised objections to this passage, writing in an email that “it could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings.”
Basically, she thought the CIA was throwing the State Department under the bus.
A source familiar with the White House emails on the Benghazi talking point revisions say that State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland was raising two concerns about the CIA’s first version of talking points, which were going to be sent to Congress: 1) The talking points went further than what she was allowed to say about the attack during her state department briefings; and, 2) 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.
In the end, Kessler argues, the White House tried to please both agencies, and the result was that the administration looked like it was trying to hide something.
The final version of the talking points shows what happened: Just about everything was cut, leaving virtually nothing. The reference to “consulate” was also deleted, replaced by “diplomatic post.”
From a bureaucratic perspective, it may have seemed like the best possible solution at the time. From a political perspective, it turned out to be a disaster.
To be fair, this bureaucratic explanation for the White House’s Benghazi “cover-up” probably doesn’t tell the whole story. And it definitely doesn’t answer all the questions that Republicans have raised about Benghazi.
But inter-agency finger-pointing is a fact of life in Washington, and it seems clear that both the CIA and the State Department screwed up in Benghazi. So it makes sense that both agencies would want to avoid bearing the full brunt of the blame for the tragic attacks, which left four Americans, including the beloved U.S. Ambassador to Libya, dead.
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