May 10, 2013

Emails: State Department sought to change Benghazi talking points

Republicans say the administration tried to mislead Congress and the American people, but the White House insists that opponents are trying to politicize the issue.

By Donna Cassata and Julie Pace / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Political considerations influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department emails.

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Susan Rice

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Libyan military guards check one of the U.S. Consulate's burned-out buildings after a deadly attack there in Benghazi, Libya.

2012 Associated Press File Photo

The latest disclosures Friday raised new questions about whether the Obama administration tried to play down any terrorist factor in the attack on a diplomatic compound just weeks before the November presidential election. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when insurgents struck the U.S. mission in two nighttime attacks.

The White House has insisted that it made only a "stylistic" change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.

Numerous agencies had engaged in an email discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Rice for their public comments. In one email, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamic extremists in Benghazi.

Nuland's email said such revelations "could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to (central intelligence) agency warnings," according to a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of emails.

The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the emails that have not been released.

The final talking points that weekend reflected the work of several government agencies -- CIA, FBI, State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- apparently determined to cast themselves in the best light as the investigation was just getting under way.

A scathing independent report in December found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department meant that security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

Eight months after the attack, the long-running and bitter dispute between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on the subject shows no sign of abating. The GOP argues that the administration deliberately tried to mislead Congress and the American people. The White House insists that Republicans are trying to politicize the issue.

"There's an ongoing effort to make something political out of this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday of the disclosure of the emails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers. "The problem with that effort is that it's never been clear what it is they think they're accusing the administration of doing."

After the attack, Rice appeared on talk shows and said evidence showed no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike. She said the attack appeared to be a copycat of demonstrations that had erupted hours earlier outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, spurred by accounts of a YouTube film attributed to a California man mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Rice is the daughter of Lois Dickson Rice, who was born and raised in Portland and spends three to four months a year at her summer home in Lincolnville, just north of Camden.

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