The e-mails show that the White House, State Department, FBI and the CIA all participated in shaping the talking points, which have become a flashpoint for critics of the administration’s response to the attack.
The White House released the materials in the wake of Republicans’ clamor for more information about how the Obama administration crafted its explanation for the incident, which came at the height of last year’s campaign season, and resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
A congressional hearing last week, where whistleblowers took issue with the administration’s initial explanation that the attacks were the spontaneous outgrowth of an unrelated protest (and not a terrorist attack) gave rise to new demands for more information from the administration.
President Barack Obama has dismissed Republicans’ interest in the administration’s evolving explanation for the attack as a "sideshow,” as recently as this Monday.
"The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” he said. "What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were.”
Underlying Republicans’ interest in the Benghazi matter – at which they’ve kept now for six months – is a suspicion that the administration clouded the reality of the attack so as to not damage Obama’s prospects for re-election.
The release of the e-mails put tremendous pressure on the Obama administration as they said the talking points were not changed, although the emails show that the talking points had been adjusted to remove mentions of al-Qaeda.
According to The Washington Post, the initial CIA draft said that the attack was carried out by a group consisting of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists from Ansar al-Sharia and angry demonstrators. Although the White House did not raise any issues with the assessment, the emails show that the CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell removed the reference to al-Sharia because that assessment was classified at the time and because FBI officials said making the information public could compromise investigations.
In addition, the emails prove that the phrase "with ties to al-Qaeda" was dropped at the request of the CIA and not the White House. CIA analysts who recommended the change said there was no intelligence to support the assertion at the time. The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was removed at the request of the State Department with the approval of the CIA for the same reasons, the White House claimed.
Another change that has attracted heavy attention from Republicans in Congress was the removal of a warning about the security situation in Benghazi. The e-mails show that Victoria Nuland, who was then the spokeswoman for State, objected to the inclusion of that warning. She said that it "could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either?”