White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks to reporters about the emails… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Email traffic exchanged during the drafting of talking points about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, last year shows that the State Department and White House were more involved in shaping the document than they previously let on.
The newly released emails highlight the political concerns expressed in those discussions as President Obama's administration wrestled with what to tell the public in the wake of the September attack and in the midst of the presidential campaign.
The emails show that the original CIA document underwent several revisions, including one pushed by the State Department to delete a reference to CIA warnings about the terrorist threat around the diplomatic outpost.
That information "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wrote, according to emails read to the Los Angeles Times by a congressional source. They were originally reported by the conservative weekly magazine Weekly Standard and ABC News. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney did not dispute their authenticity during a lengthy explanation Friday afternoon.
The talking points were originally written for members of Congress who might speak publicly about the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. They also went to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice as she prepared for Sunday news shows five days after the attack.
Carney said Friday that the talking points were drafted as the facts were coming to light, and that officials were trying to say what they knew without speculating about the unknown.
"The effort is always to, in that circumstance, and with an ongoing investigation and a lot of information, some of it accurate, some of it not, about what had happened and who was responsible, to provide information for members of Congress and others in the administration, for example, who might speak publicly about it that was based on only what the intelligence community could say for sure it thought it knew," Carney said.
The emails indicate that Nuland was the driving force behind significant changes.
The information about the advance warning could be used by Congress to criticize the State Department, Nuland wrote, "so why do we want to feed that?"
She was reacting to a paragraph that said the CIA had previously warned of a threat of "extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya."
"We cannot rule out the individuals have previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks," the original document read.
Nuland also objected to a line that mentioned a militant group, Ansar al Sharia, which had taken credit for the attack.
"I have serious concerns about all parts highlighted below," she wrote, questioning why the administration was "arming members of Congress to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the FBI investigation. Why do we want the Hill to be fingering Ansar al Sharia when we aren't doing that ourselves?"
The FBI had signed off on the mention of Ansar al Sharia, according to an email by a staffer who was coordinating the interagency negotiations.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor at the White House, wrote in a subsequent email that Nuland's concerns would have to be taken into account.
The emails were discussed, though not quoted, in a report by House Republicans released last month. Nuland was not named, and little was made of it.
But the wording of the actual emails raised new questions in a contentious news conference Friday. Previously, Carney had said the changes to the talking points were stylistic, not substantive.
Some members of Congress were shown the emails months ago, according to senior administration officials, and raised no objections. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded that the White House release all of the emails for review.
"Congress is going to continue to investigate this issue using all the resources at our disposal," he said in a statement from his office.