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Surprises in the Benghazi Talking Points

 

Ambassador Susan Rice on Face the Nation (photo: cbsnews.com)

Ambassador Susan Rice on Face the Nation (photo: cbsnews.com)

On Friday, ABC News published all 11 versions of the Benghazi talking points that were written by the CIA at the request of Congress and used by Ambassador Susan Rice on several TV talk shows on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. It was widely reported for months that the original talking points had been edited and that the changes included the deletion of references to the terrorist group al-Qa’ida and to Ansar al-Shari’ah, a local Islamist group with suspected ties to an al-Qa’ida affiliate called al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Republicans have used this to assert that the administration changed the talking points in order to cover up the terrorist nature of the incident that occurred in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. They have also suggested that the administration introduced the notion that a demonstration preceded the attack and that this notion was intended somehow to distract the public’s attention from the fact that a terrorist attack had occurred, apparently unimpressed by the fact that President Obama had already referred to it as “an act of terror” on Sept. 12 and that the public often rallies around an administration after an attack. We now know that there was no such demonstration, although several published reports at the time suggested that there had been.

We still know relatively little about the actual editing of the talking points, other than that the final version was written by an interagency deputies’ group (that is, a meeting of the deputy heads of several agencies, such meetings are a common coordinating mechanism within the bureaucracy). Now that we have the texts of all the versions, we know that the original talking points grew but then shrank again and in the end, at the deputies’ meeting, were severely cut. These cuts, however, are not what we were led to believe.

It is notable that the “spontaneous demonstration” is included in every version of the document, including the original. This was wrong, but it was believed by many at the time and there was no particular reason to assume that it would be important or controversial. (People on the scene would have known that there was no demonstration, but they presumably would have had no reason to mention that fact at least until they had heard the claim made on television.) It is also notable that, although al-Qa’ida and Ansar al-Shari’ah were mentioned in the original talking points, the document did not claim that they were responsible for the event. Rather, it said that the attack was carried out by “a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society,” including “Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida.” It goes on to say that “initial press reporting” linked Ansar al-Shari’ah to the attack but that the group denied organizing it. It is worth mentioning that Ambassador Rice, speaking on CBS on Sept. 16, also allowed that local extremists, al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups, or al-Qa’ida itself could have been involved but that further investigation was necessary to determine that. This was true, and in my modest opinion, a more responsible way of handling the issue than making unsubstantiated public claims of responsibility. Another item cut was actually supportive of the notion that the attack might have been spontaneous, pointing out that weapons and experienced fighters were widely available in Libya.

As mentioned above, we still do not know who, or which agency, made specific cuts or why. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post has suggested, however, that the various agencies (the State Department and the CIA, in particular, based on the leaks so far) appeared wary of their attempts to blame each other for the incident. The State Department, for example, reportedly claimed that the mention of previous attacks (1) exceeded what State had been permitted to say in its effort to avoid undermining the FBI investigation and (2) was an attempt by the CIA to shift blame and cause trouble for State in Congress. (This probably referred to an intermediate version that stated more explicitly that the CIA had warned of the extremist threat in the area.) In any event, in the end they managed to eliminate just about everything from the talking points that any agency objected to, leaving a document that was short, bland, safe, and—well—bureaucratic. It is not really necessary to assume White House manipulation to explain this outcome, nor is it clear that the White House benefited from it.

Here, in full, are the original talking points (grammatical peculiarities and all) as provided by the CIA on the morning of Sept. 14, 2012:

  • We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex.
  • The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.
  • Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia. The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved. Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook page aims to spread Sharia in Libya and emphasizes the need for jihad to counter what it views as false interpretations of Islam, according to an open source study.
  • The wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya almost certainly contribute to the lethality of the attacks.
  • Since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.
  • We are working w/ Libyan authorities and intelligence partners in an effort to help bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens.

Update: David Brooks at the New York Times reports that the deputies’ committee barely discussed the talking points. His sources tell him that the CIA rewrote the document taking the other agencies’ objections into account.

 

 

Author

Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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