US State Department sought to change Benghazi talking points

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senior US State Department officials pressed for changes in the talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice used after the deadly attack on the US diplomatic mission in Libya last September, with senior officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department emails.

The latest developments are certain to add fuel to the politically charged debate over the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans when insurgents struck the US mission in two nighttime attacks.

Republicans have complained that in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, the Obama administration was trying to conceal that the attack was the work of terrorists and not a protest over an anti-Islamic film that got out of hand.

Such revelations just before the election perhaps could have undercut President Barack Obama's record on fighting terrorism, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, one of his re-election strengths.

Democrats have in turn accused Republicans of trying to capitalise on the attack to score political points.

The White House has insisted that it made only a "stylistic" change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Ms Rice suggested on five television talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.

"There's an ongoing effort to make something political out of this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday of the disclosure of the emails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers.

"The problem with that effort is that it's never been clear what it is they think they're accusing the administration of doing."

A scathing independent report in December found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department meant that security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

The report largely absolved then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, seen by many as the early Democratic favorite for president in 2016.

The State Department emails and other internal administration deliberations were summarised last month in an interim investigative report by Republicans on five House committees.

New details about political concerns and the names of the administration officials who wrote the emails concerning the talking points emerged on Friday.

Before the presidential election, the administration said Ms Rice's talking points were based on the best intelligence assessments available in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

But the report and the new details on Friday suggest a greater degree of White House and State Department involvement.

Following congressional briefings in the days after the attack, members of Congress asked the CIA for talking points to explain the assault, and the CIA under the direction of David Petraeus put together an assessment.

It said Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda took part in the attack, cited reports linking the attack to the group Ansar al-Sharia, mentioned the experience of Libyan fighters and referred to previous warnings of threats in Benghazi.

Numerous agencies had engaged in an email discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Ms Rice for their public comments.

In one email, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamic extremists in Benghazi.

Ms Nuland's email said such revelations "could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to (central intelligence) agency warnings," according to a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of emails.

The final talking points that weekend reflected the work of several government agencies - CIA, FBI, State Department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence - apparently determined to cast themselves in the best light as the investigation was just getting underway.

The reference to al-Sharia was deleted, but Ms Nuland wrote later that night, "these don't resolve all my issues and those of my building leadership, they are consulting with NSS," a reference to the National Security staff within the White House.

Senior administration officials met that Saturday morning to finalise the talking points.

Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell worked with the officials to produce a final set of talking points that deleted mentions of Al-Qaeda, the experience of fighters in Libya and Islamic extremists, according to the congressional official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to speak publicly about the emails that still have not been released.

The next day, Sunday, Sept. 16, Ms Rice appeared on the talk shows and said evidence gathered so far showed no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike.

She said the attack in Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be a copycat of demonstrations that had erupted hours earlier outside the US Embassy in Cairo, spurred by accounts of a YouTube film attributed to a California man mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

"In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video," she said.

"People gathered outside the embassy, and then it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control."

Administration officials said on Friday they deleted the references to terror groups because it was then unclear - and still is - who was responsible for the attack.

Ms Rice's depiction of the chain of events contrasted with one offered by Libya's Interim President Mohammed el-Megarif, who said at the time there was no doubt the perpetrators had predetermined the date of the attack.

"It was planned, definitely. It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago," el-Megarif said.

"And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival."