Big Issues Are Lost in Focus on Libya Talking Points

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WASHINGTON -- Three days after the lethal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked intelligence agencies to write up some unclassified talking points on the episode. Reporters were besieging him and other legislators for comment, and he did not want to misstate facts or disclose classified information.

More than 10 weeks later, the four pallid sentences that intelligence analysts cautiously delivered are the unlikely center of a quintessential Washington drama, in which a genuine tragedy has been fed into the meat grinder of election-year politics.

In the process, the most important questions about Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11, have largely gotten lost: Were requests for greater security for diplomats in Libya ignored? Even if Al Qaeda's core in Pakistan has been decimated, what threat is posed by its affiliates and imitators in other countries where they have taken refuge? How can crucial diplomacy be conducted amid the dangerous chaos that has followed the toppling of dictators across the Arab world?

Instead, it is the parsing of the talking points -- who wrote them, altered them, recited them on television or tried to explain them -- that could decide the fate of a leading candidate for secretary of state, Susan E. Rice, currently the United Nations ambassador. On Wednesday, for the second time in two weeks, Ms. Rice received a hearty endorsement from President Obama in the face of a continuing battering on Capitol Hill.

"Susan Rice is extraordinary," he said in response to a reporter's question as he met at the White House with his cabinet for the first time since the election. "Couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done."

Now the talking points could also affect the chances of a top candidate for C.I.A. director, Michael Morell, the agency's acting director, who on Tuesday accompanied Ms. Rice to a briefing for some of her most vocal Senate critics and misspoke about changes in the original draft of the talking points.

Intelligence officials said Wednesday that Mr. Morell's flub, which prompted a sharply worded statement from three Republican senators, was an insignificant mix-up: He said the F.B.I. had taken out a specific reference to Al Qaeda, when in fact that change was made by the C.I.A. The F.B.I. had added another phrase to the same sentence.

"This was an honest mistake, and it was corrected as soon as it was realized," one official said. "There is nothing more to this."

But such earnest attempts to lower the political temperature have so far failed. As so often in Washington, the clashes over Benghazi have a semi-hidden personal element that adds to the emotion. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who led the initial lambasting of Ms. Rice, had been subjected to withering criticism by her in 2008 when he was running for president. And senators considering Ms. Rice's future are quite aware that her main rival for the job of secretary of state is their colleague Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

For now, the focus of Congress and the news media is mostly on language. For weeks after the Benghazi attack, Republicans accused Mr. Obama and his aides of avoiding labeling it "terrorism" for fear of tarnishing his national security record in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Since his re-election, that issue has faded, and the debate has shifted to the talking points.

The facts about the talking points, like those about the Benghazi attack itself, have dribbled out slowly and awkwardly from intelligence officials who generally do not relish airing their internal deliberations. But there is now a fairly clear account.

The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies rarely prepare unclassified talking points; more often, policy makers submit proposed public comments, and intelligence analysts check them for classified information or errors of fact. But in the storm of news media coverage after the killings in Benghazi, C.I.A. officials responded quickly to Mr. Ruppersberger's request on Sept. 14.

C.I.A. analysts drafted four sentences describing "demonstrations" in Benghazi that were "spontaneously inspired" by protests in Cairo against a crude video lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. (Later assessments concluded there were no demonstrations.) The initial version of the talking points identified the suspected attackers -- a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, with possible links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the terrorist network in North Africa.

But during a subsequent review by several intelligence agencies, C.I.A. officials were concerned that such specific language might tip off the malefactors, skew intelligence collection in Libya and interfere with the criminal investigation. So they replaced the names with the blanket term "extremists."

Ms. Rice has been skewered by Republican senators for her comments on Sunday television news programs on Sept. 16, which they have suggested were part of an administration cover-up of the terrorist nature of the attack and links to Al Qaeda. The criticism has barely been affected by the revelation that she accurately recited the talking points the intelligence agencies prepared.

On Wednesday, as she and Mr. Morell continued their meetings on Capitol Hill, an evident preamble to her possible nomination as secretary of state, Republican senators were not mollified.

"I continue to be troubled by the fact that the United Nations ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign," Senator Susan Collins of Maine told a throng of reporters waiting for her after her hourlong meeting with Ms. Rice and Mr. Morell.

Ms. Collins said she "would need to have additional information" before she could support Ms. Rice for secretary of state.

Ms. Rice and Mr. Morell also met at length with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who said that he too was deeply troubled by what he has learned. "The whole issue of Benghazi has been, to me, a tawdry affair," he said. Though he did not mention Ms. Rice by name, he seemed to question whether she would be an appropriate choice for a position as vital as secretary of state.

Mr. Morell -- thrust into the acting directorship of the C.I.A. on Nov. 9 when David H. Petraeus stepped down in a sex scandal -- might himself soon be asking for the senators' support. He is among a handful of top candidates to lead the agency, and it is uncertain whether the flap over his misstatement about the Benghazi talking points will be held against him.

Thomas Fingar, a former intelligence official and veteran of highly politicized disputes over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Iran's nuclear program, said that such Congressional scrutiny could be disconcerting for an analyst unaccustomed to the political fray.

"Michael is a very, very capable guy," said Mr. Fingar, now at Stanford University. "But until you've sat at the table to undergo the grilling in this kind of atmosphere, it's hard to imagine what it's like. I might forget my own birthday."

Jeremy W. Peters and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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