WASHINGTON — A long-simmering dispute over the White House's account of the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, flared up Friday, with a disclosure of emails that show the White House was more deeply involved in revising talking points about the attack than officials have previously acknowledged.
The emails, which the administration turned over to Congress, show the White House coordinating an intensive process with the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and other agencies to obtain the final version of the talking points, used by Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, in television appearances after the attack.
The State Department, in particular, pushed to remove references to al-Qaida and Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militant group suspected of carrying out the attack, as well as warnings about other potential terrorist threats from the CIA, which drafted the initial talking points.
Rice was later harshly criticized as having misled the public about the nature of the attack in her TV appearances. For Republicans and other critics, the talking points have become a potent symbol of the Obama administration's mishandling of the incident, even if they constitute only a part of the broader issues, from embassy security to intelligence gathering, that were raised by the attack.
Disclosure of the emails — initially in a little-noticed House Republican report that was expanded on by the Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine, and on Friday by ABC News — had the White House scrambling to provide an explanation.
The disclosures about how extensively the talking points were revised reveal the divisions that often exist among intelligence agencies, as well as the bureaucratic infighting that often lies behind the bland language in official government statements.
In this case, the State Department bridled at the CIA's initial draft, both because it went further than what the department had been disclosing publicly and because it was apparently worried that CIA warnings about other potential threats would reflect badly on the department.
The CIA's first draft of the talking points was emailed to a group of senior officials at several federal agencies shortly before 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, the New York Times reported, citing several officials.
About 45 minutes after the first draft was sent out, the State Department's spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, raised concerns with the White House and the intelligence agencies, saying the information 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?"
CIA officials responded with a new draft, but Nuland replied that the changes did not "resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership."
According to the Times, a State Department official said Nuland was expressing concerns that the CIA's first versions of talking points, intended to be made available to lawmakers, were more explicit than what she had been allowed to tell reporters.
She also believed that the CIA, which had more than 20 personnel in Benghazi on the night of the attack, was trying to absolve itself at the State Department's expense before any investigation was completed by suggesting that repeated CIA warnings about the security situation in the city were being ignored, this official said, according to the Times.