WASHINGTON — The FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies — but not the White House — made major changes in talking points that led to the Obama administration’s confusing explanations of the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, a Senate report concluded Monday.
The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee report said the White House was only responsible for a minor change. Some Republicans had questioned whether the presidential staff rewrote the talking points for political reasons.
The committee, headed by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, also said the director of national intelligence has been stonewalling the panel in holding back a promised timeline of the talking point changes.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attack. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said she used the talking points to say in television interviews on Sept. 16 that it may have been a protest that got out of hand.
Rice’s incorrect explanation may have cost her a chance to be nominated as the next secretary of state, as Senate Republicans publicly said they would not vote to confirm her. President Barack Obama instead nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to win easy confirmation.
The State Department this month acknowledged major weaknesses in security and errors in judgment exposed in a scathing independent report on the assault. Two top State officials appealed to Congress to fully fund requests to ensure diplomats and embassies are safe.
Testifying before two congressional committees, senior State Department officials acknowledged that serious management and leadership failures left the diplomatic mission in Benghazi woefully unprepared for the terrorist attack. The State Department review board’s report led four department officials to resign.
The Senate report said that on Sept. 19, eight days after the attack, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told the Homeland committee that the four Americans died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”
The same day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the department stood by the intelligence community’s assessment. The next day, Sept. 20, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said, “It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also used the words “terrorist attack” on Sept. 21.
Olsen’s acknowledgement was important, the report said, because talking points prepared by intelligence officials the previous week had undergone major changes.
A line saying “we know” that individuals associated with al-Qaida or its affiliates participated in the attacks was changed to say, “There are indications that extremists participated.”
The talking points dropped the reference to al-Qaida and its affiliates altogether. In addition, a reference to “attacks” was changed to “demonstrations.”
The committee said the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and representatives from the CIA, State Department, counterintelligence center and the FBI told the panel that the changes were made within the CIA and the intelligence community. The change from “we know” there was an al-Qaida connection to “indications” of connections to “extremists” was requested by the FBI.
The report said the only White House change substituted a reference of “consulate” to “mission.”
Intelligence officials differed over whether the al-Qaida reference should remain classified, the report said. It added, however, that the analyst who drafted the original talking points was a veteran career analyst in the intelligence community who believed it was appropriate to include a reference to al-Qaida in the unclassified version.
The analyst came to that conclusion because of claims of responsibility by a militant group, Ansar al-Sharia.
The committee said Clapper offered to provide the committee a detailed timeline on the development of the talking points. Despite repeated requests, the committee said the information has not been provided.
“According to a senior IC (intelligence community) official, the timeline has not been delivered as promised because the administration has spent weeks debating internally whether or not it should turn over information considered `deliberative’ to the Congress,” the report said.
The report added that if the administration had described the attack as a terrorist assault from the outset, “there would have been much less confusion and division in the public response to what happened there on Sept. 11, 2012.”
“The unnecessary confusion… should have ended much earlier than it did,” the committee said.