WASHINGTON — Then CIA-Director David Petraeus objected to the final talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, because he wanted to see more detail publicly released, including a warning issued from the CIA about plans for a break-in at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, a newly released email shows.
Under pressure in the investigation that continues eight months after the attacks, the White House on Wednesday released 99 pages of emails and a single page of hand-written notes made by Petraeus’ deputy, Mike Morell, after a meeting at the White House the day before Rice’s appearance. On that page, Morell scratched out from the CIA’s early drafts of talking points mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the Cairo embassy on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration and break-in by jihadists.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” Petraeus wrote after receiving Morell’s edited version, developed after an intense back-and-forth among Obama administration officials. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Wednesday that Morell made the changes to the talking points because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The official said Morell also didn’t think it was fair to disclose the CIA’s advance warning without giving the State Department a chance to explain how it responded.
The official spoke on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the emails on the record. Petraeus declined to be interviewed.
Critics have highlighted an email by then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaida would give congressional Republicans ammunition to attack the administration in the weeks before the presidential election. Fighting terror was one of President Barack Obama’s re-election strong points.
That email was among those released by the White House, sent by Nuland on Sept. 14 at 7:39 p.m. to officials in the White House, State Department and CIA. “I have serious concerns about all the parts highlighted below, and 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 investigation,” she wrote.
The emails were shared with Congress earlier this year as a condition for allowing the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director to move forward.
The general counsel for the national intelligence director’s office briefed members and staff from the Senate Intelligence Committee and leadership on the emails on Feb. 15 at a session in which staff could take notes. A similar briefing took place March 19 for the House Intelligence Committee and leadership staff.
An interim report last month from the Republicans on five House committees criticized the Obama administration and mentioned the emails, but the issue exploded last Friday when new details emerged.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee read some of the emails aloud last Wednesday at a hearing with State Department officials. The next day, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the White House to release the emails.
A Boehner spokesman said Wednesday the emails released by the White House only confirm the interim report.
“They contradict statements made by the White House that it and the State Department only changed one word in the talking points,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement. “The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them.”
Congressional officials selectively shared parts of the emails, and new revelations emerged Friday that showed State Department and other administration officials pressing for references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, expressing concerns about the political implications.
The White House released the full set of emails sent to Congress under the pressure in hopes of putting an end to the controversy that has dogged the administration for months. The White House says congressional Republicans have misrepresented some of them.
The emails released by the White House were partially blacked out, including to remove names of senders and recipients who are career employees at the CIA and elsewhere. The names were replaced with references to the office where they worked.
The talking points were used by Rice in her appearance on five news shows on Sunday, Sept. 16, and also sent to Congress. An official with the CIA’s office of congressional affairs whose name was blacked out sent the final version to Petraeus on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 12:51 p.m.
“As mentioned last night, State had voiced strong concerns with the original text due to the criminal investigation,” the official wrote.
Petraeus responded at 2:27 saying he’d prefer not to even use them in that form.
But he said the decision was up to the White House’s national security staff.
“NSS’s call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman (Dutch) Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use. Regardless, thanks for the great work.”
Ruppersberger is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
At a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said there has been “very, very substantial progress” in the investigation into who was responsible for the twin nighttime attacks in Benghazi. Earlier this month, the FBI said it was seeking information on three people who were on the grounds of the diplomatic mission when it was attacked. The FBI posted photographs of the three people and said they may be able to provide information to help in the investigation.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday’s release of the emails was a “wise choice”
For The Associated Press, Donna Cassata contributed to this report.