The White House release of the e-mail chain regarding the Benghazi talking points on Wednesday has opened up a slew of new questions.
Covering only two days—Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15—and focused only on the production of the hapless talking points, they raise the question: What communication took place internally within the government before and after those two days?
And yet what is amply clear is that the production of the talking points, which had been requested by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in anticipation of media inquiries, became a bureaucratic exercise in protecting the government’s major players. White House and State Department officials involved showed no inclination to want to actually inform the public or the media. Instead, they seemed to be motivated by deflecting blame and protecting the Obama Administration from congressional scrutiny.
Reproduced below are the three major iterations of the talking points. The first reproduction is the initial set produced by the CIA and sent out on September 14 at 2:27 p.m. by its Office of Public Affairs for comment. It is brief but quite informative, mentioning specifically the potential al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia connections in the attack.
The reaction from the CIA’s own general counsel, Steven W. Preston, at 4:20 p.m. produced the first major revision of the talking points. “Folks, I know there is hurry to get this out but we need to hold it long enough to ascertain whether providing it conflicts with express instructions…that, in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assertions as to who did this, etc.—even internally, not to mention for public release.” That eliminated the al-Qaeda reference as a potential participant in the attack.
Meanwhile, the White House National Security Council staff—in particular, Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor—weighed in with concerns about what Congress might do with the information. Rhodes’s statement is particularly ironic in hindsight: “There is a ton of wrong information getting into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed.”
Yet it was the State Department that had the most reservations. Department spokesman Victoria Nuland did not like the draft—nor did her “building leadership,” as she said in an e-mail on September 14 at 9:24 p.m. Her interventions prompted the CIA to remove just about every bit of substance in the talking points:
Why do we want Hill to start fingering Ansar Al Sharia, when we aren’t doing that ourselves until we have the investigation results…and the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that?… Concerned.
Presumably, the meeting called on the morning of September 15 by Rhodes produced the handwritten revisions that eviscerated the talking points. This led to the final draft, the third reproduced here, a masterpiece of bureaucratese.
It is no wonder that former CIA director David Petraeus commented on September 15 at 2:27 p.m., “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.… [T]his is certainly not what [HPSCI] vice chairman [Dutch] Ruppersberger [D–MD] was hoping to get for unclas use.” Petraeus ended with: “Regardlesss, thx for the great work.” It is hard to imagine that he meant it.