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article imageThe White House releases 100 pages of Benghazi emails

By JohnThomas Didymus     May 16, 2013 in Politics
The White House on Wednesday released 100 pages of emails related to the development of talking points used by the UN ambassador Susan Rice about the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. The White House said the emails show there was no cover-up.
The release of what the White House says is the full set of emails related to the development of the talking points drawn by the White House, the State Department and the CIA, was in response to charges of "cover-up" from congressional Republicans.
Republicans lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of deliberately misrepresenting the character of the attack by downplaying the role of an al-Qaeda affiliated group and pushing the suggestion that it was a spontaneous mob action in response to an anti-Islam film, only to protect the image of the administration in the approach to the 2012 election.
The emails, however, appear to water-down the persistent charges of a "cover-up" and give a more rounded picture than the email leaks earlier in the week that portrayed the State Department as editing the talking points primarily to protect the image of the administration. They appear to show active engagement between the White House, the State Department and the CIA over what to say to the public.
The Huffington Post reports that in a media briefing at the White House Wednesday, officials said the emails show that other government agencies besides the State Department influenced the changes to the talking points that Rice eventually used.
According to The Washington Post, the initial CIA draft said that the attack was carried out by a group consisting of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists from Ansar al-Sharia and angry demonstrators. Although the White House did not raise any issues with the assessment, the emails show that the CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell removed the reference to al-Sharia because that assessment was classified at the time and because FBI officials said making the information public could compromise investigations.
This appears to contradict claims by Republican lawmakers that the White House was responsible for removing references to the al-Qaeda affiliated group and that the White House resisted efforts to portray the attack as terrorist.
Critics had pointed out what appeared the prominent role of the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in editing the talking points to protect the reputation of the administration in its fight against terrorism. She reportedly requested that a line which said "at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants" be removed.
According to The Huffington Post, Nuland had said in a September 14 email that she wanted the line removed because 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? Concerned ..."
But the White House said the released emails show that the CIA deputy director Morell had also requested that the line be removed because he thought it was irrelevant to the main thrust of the subject of the talking points. He also felt that including the line without allowing State Department officials to explain how they responded to the purported warnings was unfair and unprofessional.
The Huffington Post reports that an earlier CIA internal review of the circumstances and considerations that influenced the changes to the talking points stressed that changes were made mostly because of concern for accuracy and precision and because of concerns that direct references to al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, would amount to prejudging the outcome of ongoing investigations.
An earlier version of the talking points which said: "... we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda participated in the attack" was changed because senior CIA officials objected on the grounds that it was too early to say who was responsible for the attack. They also said the statement preempted ongoing investigations at the time.
The Guardian notes an email from the CIA after the attack which objected to the reference to al-Qaeda, with a CIA analyst asking: "Do we know this?"
The White House said the emails prove that the phrase "with ties to al-Qaeda" was dropped at the request of the CIA and not the White House. CIA analysts who recommended the change said there was no intelligence to support the assertion at the time. The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was removed at the request of the State Department with the approval of the CIA for the same reasons, the White House claimed.
Other changes were of a more general nature related to accuracy and logic in use of language. The Huffington Post reports that a statement which said that "attacks in Benghazi... evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate" was edited to say "demonstrations in Benghazi" because the words "attacks" and "assault" were synonymous.
The White House noted that the early version of the talking points which read: "We believe, based on currently available information, that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by protests at the US embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US consulate and subsequently the annex," also noted that assessment was subject to change.
According to The Huffington Post, after release of the emails, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration hopes that the emails would put to rest issues raised in relation to Benghazi incident. He said:
“Despite the fact that e-mails relating to the Benghazi talking points were made available to members of Congress several months ago, in recent days these e-mails have been selectively and inaccurately read out to the media. To make clear what is and is not in these e-mails, today the White House took the extraordinary step of releasing these e-mails. You can now see what the Congress has seen -- collectively these emails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House's interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation. After 11 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents, and now this release, we can hopefully spend our time working on what’s important – what we can do together to ensure those serving their nation overseas are better protected than they were last September."
However, critics of the administration continue to point to what they consider evidence that the changes were made primarily to prevent criticism of its handling of the affair. Critics maintain that the emails contradict earlier claims that White House contributions to the changes were non-substantial.
Fox News in its report emphasized the role of the White House in the changes to the talking points, noting that General Petraeus had objected to the changes in a September 15 email, saying: "Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this."
According to The Huffington Post, Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said:
The House interim report found 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. Those findings are confirmed by the emails released today, and they contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points. 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.
The Guardian reports Buck also said: "... 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 co-operation to come."
[The full set of the emails may be viewed here.]
The Obama administration is currently embroiled in three separate "scandals," the Benghazi, the IRS and the AP phone calls scandals.
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