State Department, CIA clashed over data days after Benghazi deaths

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WASHINGTON -- New details from Obama administration emails about last year's attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrate that an intense bureaucratic clash took place between the State Department and the CIA over which agency would get to tell the story of how the tragedy unfolded.

That clash played out in the development of administration talking points that have been at the center of the controversy over its handling of the incident, according to the emails that came to light Friday.

Over the five days between the assault and the now-infamous Sunday TV talk show appearance by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, senior officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department argued over how much information to disclose about the assault in which four Americans, including Libya Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.

That internal debate and the changes it produced in the Obama administration's immediate account of the attack have revived Benghazi as a political issue in Washington six months after the presidential election in which it played a prominent role. Friday's revelations, as ABC News published 12 versions of the talking points, produced the latest round of Benghazi post-mortems in the eight months since the attacks.

Senior administration officials said in a briefing for reporters that none of President Barack Obama's political advisers were involved in discussions around the original talking points, only national security staff officials.

According to various drafts of the talking points, shaped before the final editing by the White House and other agencies, State Department officials raised concerns that the CIA-drafted version could be used by members of Congress to criticize diplomatic security preparedness in Benghazi.

One U.S. intelligence official familiar with the talking points' drafting said: "The changes don't reflect a turf battle. They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation."

One version of the talking points, drafted by the CIA, noted that unknown gunmen had carried out at least five recent attacks in and around Benghazi against "foreign interests." The final version, however, did not include those warnings after Victoria Nuland, the State Department's chief spokeswoman at the time, protested in emails to White House national security staff and other agencies involved in editing the talking points.

CIA officials said in the weeks after the Benghazi attack that Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaida, was not mentioned in the final talking points because the information was classified -- even though the early versions made public this week showed that the agency initially intended to name the group.

During the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney accused the White House of playing down the attackers' links to Ansar al-Sharia for political reasons, given Mr. Obama's campaign argument that he had severely weakened the terrorist group.

Reports about the emails surfaced two days after three State Department officials criticized administration actions before, during and after the September assaults in an appearance Wednesday before Congress.

The most memorable testimony came from Gregory B. Hicks, who was deputy ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time of the attack. Mr. Hicks questioned why the Benghazi facility had not been made more secure before the attack, and why the Pentagon did not send support once the attack began. Mr. Hicks also testified that he was criticized for raising the questions and was effectively demoted as a result -- allegations the State Department denied.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called upon the White House to make public emails and other information about the talking points that are among tens of thousands of pages of documents the administration turned over to lawmakers months ago. White House officials continue to assert that they have provided all the information congressional leaders have asked for.

The various versions of the CIA-drafted talking points suggests substantive changes over five days, including the removal, at the State Department's urging, of specific references to Ansar al-Sharia.

White House officials have previously said they made only one change to the CIA-drafted talking points, altering U.S. "consulate" to "diplomatic post" in the final version for accuracy. But White House officials were directly involved in developing the talking points through discussions with the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, the Justice Department, and elements of the Pentagon.

In addition to the State Department, the FBI and the Justice Department also objected to the CIA's inclusion of Ansar al-Sharia in the talking points because it could have harmed the nascent investigation, senior administration officials said Friday.

In a statement Friday, Jen Psaki, the State Department's current chief spokeswoman, said the department first reviewed the talking points Sept. 14, two days before Ms. Rice delivered them on a series of talk shows. She said Ms. Nuland raised two concerns: "First, that the points went further in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested, and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation. Second, that the points were inconsistent with the public language the administration had used to date -- meaning members of Congress would be providing more guidance to the public than the administration."

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been traveling outside the country, said Friday that Benghazi was a "tragedy. But I hate to see it turned into a pure, prolonged, political process that really doesn't tell us anything new about the facts."

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