White House releases Benghazi e-mails. Will that quiet critics?

The White House has released 100 pages of e-mails related to its handling of the terrorist attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. They present a fuller picture of a chaotic situation, but are unlikely to quiet critics questioning the administration's 'talking points' at the time.

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice listens during a news conference at the UN in 2012. Senior State Department officials pressed for changes in the talking points that Ambassador Rice used after the deadly attack on the US diplomatic mission in Libya last September, expressing concerns that Congress might criticize the Obama administration for ignoring warnings of a growing threat in Benghazi.

The White House Wednesday released 100 pages of e-mails related to its handling of the terrorist attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, last year that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The main thrust of what’s become a political scandal for President Obama is that the administration – specifically, State Department officials – changed talking points about the attack in order to play down the role of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists while asserting that the violence was “spontaneous” (perhaps related to a video insulting of Islam, which was roiling much of the Muslim world) rather than coordinated and preplanned.

Instead, the e-mails released Wednesday indicate what the administration hopes will be perceived as something less nefarious in the first few days after the attack, revealing “intensive jostling between the C.I.A. and the State Department,” as The New York Times puts it.

According to a senior administration official quoted by Politico, CIA deputy director Mike Morell first decided to scrub references to an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating in eastern Libya as well as to prior terrorist attacks in order “to protect agency and State Department officials still in Libya and to avoid compromising a nascent FBI probe into the Sept. 11, 2012 attack.”

This was before State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland requested scrubbing the documents of similar references to avoid spurring criticism from conservatives, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters Wednesday.

“Different agencies wanted to edit this language for a variety of reasons,” notes Tommy Vietor, who recently stepped down as the spokesman for the National Security Council.

“Information was flowing in and being analyzed in real time,” he wrote in an e-mail to reporters, quoted in The Washington Post. “Some things we learned came from human intelligence sources or intercepted communications, and the intelligence community needed to make sure that what we said publicly didn’t tip off the bad guys or disclose sources and methods. There was also an ongoing investigation and concern about public statements complicating that effort to bring whoever did this to justice.”

Several news sources point out that it was the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee that asked for unclassified talking points in order to help members speak publicly about the attack.

The final version of the talking points might have satisfied members of Congress – at least for the time being – except for UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance on five television news shows shortly after the attack when she emphasized the “spontaneous” nature of the attack.

That received such a sharp reaction from congressional Republicans and other critics that her chances of replacing retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped to nil.

Will the release of what the White House says is the full set of e-mails regarding Benghazi satisfy administration critics? That’s unlikely.

As The Wall Street Journal points out, the release “paints a fuller picture of an administration struggling with how much to disclose about an attack that eight months later remains a focus of partisan division.”

Recent House hearings featured senior career diplomats – termed “whistleblowers” by Republicans – critical of the Obama administration’s actions before, during, and after the assault on the temporary US mission.

In a statement Wednesday, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the released e-mails confirm a House interim report finding that “senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi” and that those changes were ultimately made.

“The seemingly political nature of the State Department's concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them,” Mr. Buck said in his statement. “This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the Administration has still refused to produce. We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come."

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