WASHINGTON — Then CIA-Director David Petraeus objected to the final talking points the Obama administration used after the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, because he wanted to see more details revealed to the public, according to emails released Wednesday by the White House.
Under pressure in the investigation that continues eight months after the attacks, the White House on Wednesday released 99 pages of emails and a single page of hand-written notes made by Petraeus' deputy, Mike Morell, after a meeting at the White House on Saturday, Sept. 15. On that page, Morell scratched out from the CIA's early drafts of talking points mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the Cairo embassy on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration and break-in by jihadists.
Petraeus apparently was displeased by the removal of so much of the material his analysts initially had proposed for release. The talking points were sent to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to prepare her for an appearance on news shows on Sunday, Sept. 16, and also to members of the House Intelligence Committee.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” Petraeus wrote after receiving Morell's edited version, developed after an intense back-and-forth among Obama administration officials. “Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this, then.”
Petreaus' email comes at the end of extensive back-and-forth between officials at the CIA, White House, State Department and other agencies weighing in on a public explanation for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans
The emails were partially blacked out, including removal of names of senders and recipients who are career employees at the CIA and elsewhere.
The emails show only minor edits were requested by the White House, and most of the objections came from the State Department. “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns,” read an email that a CIA official sent to Petraeus on Friday, Sept. 14.
Critics have highlighted an email by then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaida would give congressional Republicans ammunition to attack the administration in the weeks before the presidential election. Fighting terror was one of President Barack Obama's re-election strong points
That email was among those released by the White House, sent by Nuland on Sept. 14 at 7:39 p.m. to officials in the White House, State Department and CIA. She wrote she was concerned they could prejudice the investigation and be “abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned.”
After Nuland sent several more emails throughout that Friday evening expressing further concerns, Jake Sullivan, then-deputy chief of staff at the State Department, said the issues would be worked out at a meeting at the White House on Saturday morning.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Wednesday that Morell made the changes to the talking points after that meeting because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the attacks.
The official said Morell also didn't think it was fair to disclose the CIA's advance warning without giving the State Department a chance to explain how it responded. The official spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorization to speak about the emails on the record. Petraeus declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
The intelligence official said Morell was aware of Nuland's objections but did not make the changes under pressure from the State Department but because he independently shared the concerns.
That is contradicted in an email sent to Rice on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 1:23 p.m. by a member of her staff whose name was blacked out. The email said Morell indicated he would work with Sullivan and Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, to revise the talking points. The intelligence official disputed that assertion and insisted Morell acted alone.
An email from Morell also says he spoke to Petraeus “about State's deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this.”
The emails were shared with Congress earlier this year as a condition for allowing the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director to move forward. An interim report last month from the Republicans on five House committees criticized the Obama administration and mentioned the emails, but the issue exploded last Friday when new details emerged.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee read some of the emails aloud last Wednesday at a hearing with State Department officials. The next day, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the White House to release the emails.
A Boehner spokesman said Wednesday the emails released by the White House only confirm the interim report.
“They contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement. “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 White House released the full set of emails sent to Congress under the pressure in hopes of putting an end to the controversy that has dogged the administration for months. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that “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,” Schultz said in a statement. “You can now see what the Congress has seen — collectively these e-mails 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.”
An official with the CIA's office of congressional affairs whose name was blacked out sent the final version to Petraeus on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 12:51 p.m. Petraeus responded at 2:27 saying he'd prefer not to even use them in that form.
But he said the decision was up to the White House's national security staff.
“NSS's call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman (Dutch) Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use. Regardless, thanks for the great work.”
Ruppersberger is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
At a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said there has been “very, very substantial progress” in the investigation into who was responsible for the twin nighttime attacks in Benghazi. Earlier this month, the FBI said it was seeking information on three people who were on the grounds of the diplomatic mission when it was attacked. The FBI posted photographs of the three people and said they may be able to provide information to help in the investigation.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said, “I didn't find anything that looked like a smoking gun in terms of political cooking of the talking points. There is very little input from the White House.”
But he added, “There are some things to criticize in here. The State Department looks like it is trying to avoid blame.”