Emails Track How Erroneous Benghazi Talking Points Emerged

The White House's release of e-mails this week was intended to settle questions regarding the administration's response to the attack on the Benghazi consulate in September. But while some questions may have been laid to rest, others remain and will feed a critical story line.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to take a closer look now at the trove of Benghazi-related emails that the White House made public late yesterday. The emails offer a behind-the-scenes look at how various agencies within the federal government worked to craft the talking points used to describe that attack last September. The talking points were initially developed for members of Congress, but they also provided a script for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, as she made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, including on ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS PROGRAM)

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated response to what had transpired in Cairo. And then, as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists and it then evolved from there.

BLOCK: Well, that account turned out to be wrong, and congressional Republicans have suggested the administration was deliberately misleading. Joining us now to talk about the creation of those talking points, as chronicled in those newly released emails, is NPR's Scott Horsley. And Scott, the White House released 100 pages of emails, emails that span a little over one day.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right. This is a very compressed time period. Remember, the attack happened on September 11th. That was a Tuesday. That Friday, a congressional committee asked the CIA to draw up some talking points for its members to use. And so the first batch of emails in this collection is all from people inside the CIA working to put together the talking points.

And their very first draft contains the seeds of the mistake that continues to haunt the administration. The director of terrorism analysis at the CIA wrote: we believe, based on currently available information, that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protest at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate.

So that idea, which turned out to be wrong, was in the very first assessment from the intelligence community and it survived every rewrite of the talking points all the way through the final version used by Ambassador Rice.

BLOCK: Well, how did those talking points then change over time?

HORSLEY: Well, before they even left the CIA, there were a couple of changes made, a reference to possible al-Qaida involvement was dropped. The senior intelligence official says that was to avoid compromising an ongoing investigation. And a paragraph was added about the various warnings the CIA had provided in the months leading up to the attack. And at that point, the draft was sent out to other parts of the administration for comment.

BLOCK: Okay. Sent out to the White House, the State Department, also the FBI. And what did they have to say?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House and the FBI were pretty much okay with the original draft from the CIA. They made a few stylistic changes. But the State Department raised a couple of significant objections. A spokeswoman there, Victoria Nuland, was worried about the reference to another Islamic extremist group, Ansar al-Sharia, because the State Department itself had been careful not to identify perpetrators or possible perpetrators while the investigation was underway.

The spokeswoman also complained that a reference to CIA warnings could make it appear the State Department hadn't been paying attention. And so, by Saturday afternoon, those items had been dropped from the talking points. And certainly the State Department's complaints were a part of that decision, but a senior intelligence official who briefed reporters said the CIA also agreed in dropping those points.

BLOCK: And in the end, after all of this back and forth, Scott, what ended up evolving was a fairly bland and, it turns out, faulty set of talking points that Susan Rice used on those talk shows.

HORSLEY: That's right. And anyone who's ever tried to write something by committee knows how that can happen. We should say, however, that there was an alternate set of talking points in these emails that did include a reference to al-Qaida. And three days after those Sunday talk shows, the director of the administration's counterterrorism center, Matt Olsen, gave this update to Congress.

MATT OLSEN: We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida's affiliates.

HORSLEY: So here we are just over a week after the attack and the public position of the administration went through one last rewrite.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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