WASHINGTON – New details from administration emails about last year’s attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrate that an intense bureaucratic clash took place between the State Department and the CIA over which agency would get to tell the story of how the tragedy unfolded.
That clash played out in the development of administration talking points that have been at the center of the controversy over the handling of the incident, according to the emails that came to light Friday.
Over the five days between the attacks and the now-infamous Sunday show appearance by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, senior officials from the CIA and the State Department argued over how much information to disclose about the assault in which four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.
That internal debate and the changes it produced in the Obama administration’s immediate account of the attack have revived Benghazi as a political issue in Washington six months after the presidential election in which it played a prominent role. Friday’s revelations – ABC News published 12 versions of the talking points – produced the latest round of Benghazi post-mortems in the eight months since the attacks.
Senior administration officials said in a briefing for reporters that no Obama’s political advisers were involved in discussions around the original talking points, only national security staff officials.
According to various drafts of the talking points, shaped before the final editing by the White House and other agencies, State Department officials raised concerns that the CIA-drafted version could be used by members of Congress to criticize diplomatic security preparedness in Benghazi.
One U.S. intelligence official familiar with the talking points’ drafting said: The changes don’t reflect a turf battle. They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation.
One version of the talking points, drafted by the CIA, noted that unknown gunmen had carried out at least five recent attacks in and around Benghazi against foreign interests. The final version, however, did not include those warnings after Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s chief spokesperson at the time, protested in emails to White House national security staff and other agencies involved in editing the talking points.
CIA officials said in the weeks after the Benghazi attack that Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaida, was not mentioned in the final talking points because the information was classified – even though the early versions made public this week showed that the agency initially intended to name the group.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused White House of downplaying the attackers’ links to Ansar al-Sharia for political reasons given Obama’s campaign argument that he had severely weakened the terrorist group.