Team Obama edits to Benghazi talking points: the smoking gun?

The White House refused to concede on Friday that the administration's edits to a set of 'talking points' about deadly attacks on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya, were more than cosmetic. That is debatable. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
White House spokesman Jay Carney speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Friday. The Obama administration denied Republican accusations of a cover-up in last year's deadly attack in Libya, moving on Friday to defuse a renewed political controversy after a news report said memos on the incident were edited to omit references to a CIA warning of an al Qaeda threat.

Top State Department officials pushed for edits in the talking points used by UN Ambassador Susan Rice in the aftermath of last September’s deadly attacks on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya.

In particular, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland objected to a paragraph detailing previous CIA warnings that extremists linked to Al Qaeda were active in the area, according to internal administration e-mails on the subject obtained by ABC News.

She thought this might reflect a CIA attempt to protect itself at the expense of State. In addition, 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?” wrote Ms. Nuland.

Why is this important? It’s important because the White House has long denied that administration officials made anything other than cosmetic changes to those talking points.

Reporters hammered White House spokesman Jay Carney on this question Friday, asking whether that assertion still stood. Mr. Carney insisted that it did – that the changes had ultimately been made by the CIA, not the White House or State Department.

The CIA made those alterations after an interagency process, in which many arms of the government got to weigh in, said Carney.

“There is always a deliberative process,” said the White House spokesman.

The CIA’s initial draft of the talking points almost made a reference to a possible link to the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. That didn’t make it into the final product.

“The talking points were focused on what we knew ... [and] as we learned more we provided it,” said Carney.

This latest flap is sure to feed continued news coverage of the Benghazi controversy. Republicans have accused the administration of initially covering up a link to terrorism in the attack and then downplaying that link throughout the 2012 campaign lest its record against Al Qaeda be called into question.

The GOP has aimed in particular at then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with many Republicans charging that Benghazi and its aftermath should disqualify her from becoming president of the United States.

Karl Rove’s political action group American Crossroads put out an ad Friday hitting Mrs. Clinton for her Benghazi actions, charging among other things that State Department whistle-blower Gregory Hicks was demoted and “intimidated” for speaking out about the tragedy.

Likely 2016 GOP candidate Rand Paul wrote an opinion piece, published Friday in The Washington Times, that said Clinton “should never hold high office again,” because of allegations that she ignored requests for increased security for US diplomats in Libya, among other things.

As to the e-mails revealed Friday, some Democrats noted that each version of the talking points said the demonstrations in Benghazi were “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate.”

This was why UN Ambassador Susan Rice said initially on TV that the attacks were “spontaneous,” writes left-leaning Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

“This confirms that the version of events the administration initially offered was, in fact, grounded in the intelligence community’s assessment at the moment (which turned out to be wrong),” writes Mr. Sargent.

But even some longtime proponents of President Obama say the exchanges dealing with the talking points show some evidence of political spinning in the wake of the Benghazi attack.

“Well, they finally have something,” wrote Andrew Sullivan of Republicans on his website, The Dish.

Mr. Sullivan added that the e-mails show that another reason the talking points were edited was a legitimate desire to not tip off the jihadists about how much the US already knew.

“These are venial sins, not mortal ones,” wrote Sullivan of the e-mail edits. And he accused the GOP of “a grotesque over-reaction – for transparently political purposes.”

It’s also possible there’s a nonpolitical explanation for the edits: They stemmed not so much from political concerns as bureaucratic ones.

Victoria Nuland, a 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service who has worked for officials from both parties, including Vice President Dick Cheney, may have been protecting her department, not her current employer. Most of the references she sought to have deleted were veiled or not-so-veiled CIA charges that State had flubbed up, notes the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler.

“Further investigation may make the bureaucratic explanation moot. But, in Washington, one should never underestimate the importance of internal conflict between agencies,” Mr. Kessler writes. 

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