Former W.H. spox sets scene for talking points changes
A former spokesman for the National Security Council is offering new insights into how and why administration talking points on last September's attack in Benghazi were altered.
Tommy Vietor, who left the administration earlier this year, wrote in an e-mail to journalists Wednesday that various agencies editing and revising talking points was routine, and that Republican allegations the changes were politically charged are "just silly."
READ THE FULL E-MAIL AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST
He also said the White House could have been clearer in describing how it was involved in altering the talking points, and which document it was altering.
Republicans' accusations of an administration-led cover up in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack were fueled last week by the release of internal e-mails showing top administration officials scrubbing any mention of al Qaeda from talking points given to members of Congress and Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
The unclassified talking points have become a political flashpoint in a long-running battle between the administration and Republicans, who say that officials knew the attack last September 11 was a planned terror operation while they were telling the public it was an act of violence that grew out of a demonstration over a video produced in the United States that insulted Islam.
That was the story that Rice told five days later when she made the rounds of all five Sunday morning television talk shows.
In his note Wednesday, Vietor noted that intelligence officials had told him "that there were many different strands of information indicating there was a protest, both open source and intelligence based," but that information turned out to be inaccurate.
Last week, news organizations reported on an interagency discussion over the talking points that included White House, State Department, CIA, FBI and Justice Department officials.
Vietor explained those talking points -- or a "white paper" -- originated at the CIA as a document for members of the House Intelligence Committee to use during television interviews.
The paper went through multiple revisions, according to e-mail discussions described to CNN and to Vietor himself. Those revisions have led to accusations from Republicans the Obama administration was altering the talking points to scrub them of any reference to al Qaeda, since Obama had campaigned using as a tough-on-terror president.
Vietor, however, said the alteration of the talking points was a routine practice in government.
"Regarding the talking points, it's not surprising that the entire government would want the chance to look at and edit that language," he wrote. "This was a dynamic situation and new information was constantly flowing in, and different agencies had important concerns that had to be addressed -- the State Department had security concerns, the FBI was worried about its investigation, and the CIA had a major, yet still undisclosed, role."
In the e-mails between administration officials hashing out the Benghazi talking points, a source told CNN that then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns over the CIA's first version of the talking points, saying that they went further than what she was allowed to say about the attack during her briefings and that she believed the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department's expense by suggesting CIA warnings about the security situation were ignored.
But Vietor said that at a Saturday morning meeting between various officials, a representative of the CIA actually agreed with the State Department's concerns, and drafted a revised version taking them into account.
It was that version that was altered by White House -- they changed the word "consulate" to "diplomatic post," Vietor said. White House officials had consistently maintained they only made "stylistic" tweaks to the Benghazi talking points, beginning in November when it was first revealed the documents had been changed.
"I think it's fair to say that we could've been clearer that we were referring to this final CIA version of the talking points when we said we made one edit, but the fact that the government edited these points isn't surprising or at all nefarious -- it's routine," Vietor wrote.
-- CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper contributed to this report.
A number of you have asked me about the Benghazi talking points issue since I'm mentioned in the email traffic. I obviously no longer speak for the White House, and I'm not sending this at their request or with their approval, but I wanted to offer a bit of context given my experience.
As has been reported, after the attacks the House Intelligence Committee requested what was referred to as a "white paper" on Benghazi -- essentially unclassified talking points about what had occurred that they could use on TV. So the CIA started working on a document that was responsive to this request.
When Ambassador Rice was going to appear on the Sunday shows, it made sense to provide her the same language that was being produced for the House Intelligence Committee. The shows wanted to interview a foreign policy surrogate the weekend for a number of reasons: 1) to discuss Benghazi and the work of our diplomats abroad 2) to discuss the protests of the "Innocence of Muslims" video that had inflamed the Arab world, 3) to answer questions about Iran and other issues that might arise from PM Netanyahu's appearances.
Regarding the talking points, it's not surprising that the entire government would want the chance to look at and edit that language. This was a dynamic situation and new information was constantly flowing in, and different agencies had important concerns that had to be addressed -- the State Department had security concerns, the FBI was worried about its investigation, and the CIA had a major, yet still undisclosed, role.
What most people don't understand is that purpose of the National Security Council is to coordinate the many national security agencies of the government -- in other words to get the State Department, DOD, intelligence community, etc.... into one room to hash out disagreements and make decisions.
That role is actually written into the law that created the NSC:
The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the mili- tary services and the other departments and agencies of the Gov- ernment to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the na- tional security.
The fact that Benghazi would be discussed at an NSC meeting at the White House isn't scandalous or even surprising -- really its just standard operating procedure.
So what happened is that throughout that week, various agencies edited the "white paper" to make sure their concerns were addressed. As has been reported, on Friday the State Department raised some concerns about this graph:
"The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, 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."
I obviously can't speak for State, but if you step back, I think its reasonable that State would find this language unfair. State employees in Libya didn't need a CIA threat report to learn about some of these very public incidents.
So again, as has been reported, the issue was tabled for discussion at a Saturday morning interagency meeting. At that meeting, a senior CIA official -- an individual whom I will not name but will note is a career official and is one of the most professional people I've ever worked with -- agreed with State's concern and said that he would take the talking points back to his building to edit them. Later that day, the CIA official sent a revised version of the talking points, which the White House edited to change "consulate" to "diplomatic post". I think it's fair to say that we could've been clearer that we were referring to this final CIA version of the talking points when we said we made one edit, but the fact that the government edited these points isn't surprising or at all nefarious -- it's routine.
Different agencies wanted to edit this language for a variety of reasons. Information was flowing in and being analyzed in real time. Some things we learned came from human intelligence sources or intercepted communications, and the intelligence community needed to make sure that what we said publicly didn't tip off the bad guys or disclose sources and methods. There was also an ongoing investigation and concern about public statements complicating that effort to bring whoever did this to justice.
Some people have understandably asked how we were so wrong about there being a protest. I don't know. When I was in government, I asked some intelligence officials how it happened. They told me that there were many different strands of information indicating there was a protest, both open source and intelligence based. In fact, a number of news outlets reported there were protests: http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/05/14/four-media-reports-from-libya-that-linked-the-b/194073
Regardless, we got it wrong and we later corrected that error in a statement from the DNI spokesman. But one of the most frustrating parts of this discussion is the degree to which people now dismiss the impact of the Innocence of Muslims video. Our embassies in Cairo, Yemen and Sudan were attacked and seriously damaged. A western restaurant was torched in Lebanon. Dozens of countries experienced protests where scores of people died. Our troops in Afghanistan had to reduce their operational tempo and exposure as a preventative measure. Today, people act like the administration invented the issue. A 30-second scan of headlines from that week shows otherwise:
New York Times -- "Anti-American Protests Flare Beyond the Mideast" --
Reuters/Associated Press via Haaretz -- "Thousands demonstrate across the Muslim world as anti-U.S. protests spread" --
Associated Press -- "Protesters storm U.S. Embassy in Yemen" --
USA Today -- "Deadly embassy attacks were days in the making" -- LINK
CNN -- "Another protest turns violent outside U.S. Embassy in Cairo"
CBS News -- "Protest in Gaza over anti-Muslim movie"
The Atlantic -- "Muslim Protests Spread Around the Globe"
Washington Post -- "Anti-U.S. protests spread through Muslim world"
Fox News -- "Anti-American protests continue throughout the Middle East, Indonesia, while Muslim leader reportedly sought in Tunisia"
Associated Press -- "Protests against anti-Islam film erupt across Muslim world"
Some allege that edits were made in an effort to downplay the role of al Qaeda or to try and sell a political narrative of rapidly normalizing ties with Libya. That's just not true. The administration talked about how al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been decimated, but we were also clear that there was a growing threat from AQAP and other affiliates. Also, while it's true that some of the Benghazi attackers had links to al Qaeda, no one has ever claimed that this was a long-planned AQ operation by Zawahiri or AQ's leadership like 9/11.
The charge that there was an administration effort to "sell" a normalization narrative in Libya is nonsensical. There just isn't a political angle here. No voter went to the polls thinking, I don't like Obama, but boy we have a much better relationship with Tripoli now than we did a few years ago so he's getting my vote. It's just silly.
As the week of September 11, 2012 went on, what consumed the administration was concern about the safety and security of US personnel serving overseas. The protests were expanding geographically and growing in size. Military units were being positioned across the globe to deal with potential evacuations. It was a very, very scary time, especially as we approached Friday prayers on September 14th.
Looking back, maybe there was a time when tragedies like Benghazi brought our country together, but here we've seen the opposite. Susan Rice went on TV and offered the consensus US government view of what we thought happened at that time. For that, she was viciously attacked in deeply personal ways. Members of the Senate called her "incompetent" and suggested she was a liar. That's outrageous.
Imagine if Susan had gone on TV and offered some personal view of what happened or contradicted the intelligence community? She would've been charged with manipulating intelligence. The attacks on her have been gratuitous and unfair, and its time we start saying as much.
Clearly there was not enough security in Benghazi. The administration should be held accountable for that fact, and we should have a very serious discussion about how to ensure this never happens again. However, this focus on talking points and a Sunday show appearance nine months ago is political, and it has distracted us from focusing on protecting our people.
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