Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), in a Capitol Hill hearing, holds a photo of security… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Career CIA officers were responsible for administration claims that the armed attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead last fall grew out of a protest of an anti-Islamic video, an incorrect assertion that became a flash point for critics who say the Obama administration deliberately misled the public for political reasons, according to emails released by the White House on Wednesday.
The 99 pages of emails from the two days after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack reveal confused and occasionally sharp negotiations among officials at the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the White House and the State Department as they scrambled to craft so-called talking points about a nightlong assault that was still little understood.
The claim that the violence followed a spontaneous protest was in the first draft and was not questioned or changed in later versions, although references to Libyan groups tied to Al Qaeda were edited out.
The disclosures largely absolve the White House of drafting what proved to be misleading talking points. But they show that President Obama's aides wanted to get the message out that no evidence indicated that the attack had been planned.
"There is massive disinformation out there, in particular with Congress," wrote Tommy Vietor, then the White House national security spokesman. "They all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings."
The documents are unlikely to cool Republican ardor to further investigate an issue that has dogged Obama and his top aides, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The House Intelligence Committee initially had requested the talking points so that members of Congress could brief the news media and the public. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, used the information on five Sunday TV talk shows, and her role subsequently drew sharp criticism from Republicans who argued that Obama deliberately sought to downplay a terrorist attack during his reelection campaign.
But the emails indicate that neither the CIA nor the FBI knew whether Al Qaeda had planned or ordered the attack, and U.S. officials say that remains unclear.
A sentence stating "we know" Islamic extremists joined the attack was removed because it derived from classified intelligence collection, the emails show, as was a reference to the extremist Ansar al Sharia militia, some of whose members reportedly took part.
The White House sought input from other parts of the administration but made minimal suggestions for changes, the emails show. The State Department requested the most significant edits, which appeared to have been motivated by bureaucratic self-protection.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, worried that her department would be seen as ignoring numerous CIA warnings of danger from Islamist militants in Benghazi and eastern Libya, as well as warnings that social media posts had called for a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Nuland wrote that the CIA warnings "could be used by Members [of Congress] to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that? Concerned."
David Adams, assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs, added, "I'm with Toria. The last bullet point especially will read to members like we had been repeatedly warned."
But a senior administration official said Wednesday that Michael Morell, then the acting CIA director, already had decided to remove references to the CIA warnings. The White House released a photocopy of what it said was Morell's hand-marked copy.
[For the record, 7:58 p.m. May 15: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of former acting CIA Director Michael Morell as Morrell.]
In December, a report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies didn't look hard at "whether a protest had in fact occurred." The CIA's description of a protest in Benghazi was based on "news reports and on other information available to intelligence agencies," the report said.
Since summaries of the emails emerged last week, the White House has battled accusations that it edited the talking points to meet Obama's political concerns.
Late Wednesday afternoon, West Wing advisors called in reporters and handed out copies of the emails and answered questions.
The pages were redacted to hide the names of career, nonpolitical employees and their email addresses, although they are marked to indicate which agency and division they represented.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said the 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."
David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.