The White House release of some 100 pages of emails and notes about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year has failed to satisfy congressional Republicans, who are demanding more information.
“Why not release all of the unclassified documents?” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The president has repeatedly said that when he gets new information, he’ll release it to the public. Why not release — instead of the hand-picked ones — why not release all the unclassified documents?”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday Republicans hoped “this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come,” while the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee pressed the Pentagon for more details about military orders around the time of the attack and what military aircraft were in the region.
Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed when militants struck the U.S. mission and CIA annex in twin nighttime attacks on Sept. 11, 2012.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people about the circumstances of the attack, playing down a terrorist strike that would reflect poorly on President Barack Obama in the heat of a presidential race. Obama has dismissed charges of a cover-up and suggested on Monday that the criticism was politically motivated.
Eight months after the attack, the issue remains a political winner with the Republican base as conservatives have been ferocious in assailing Obama. Rank-and-file GOP members and outside groups have pressured Boehner to appoint a special select committee to investigate. Instead, Republicans on five House committees are pursuing their own inquiries and promising to call more witnesses to testify publicly, including the veteran diplomat and retired admiral who led an independent review of the attack that widely criticized the State Department’s insufficient security at the facility.
The emails disclosed on Wednesday underscored the turf battle between the State Department and CIA, as neither one wanted to take the blame for the attack. They also showed the reluctance within the administration about saying anything definitively as officials scrambled to write talking points for lawmakers and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who discussed the attack on Sunday talk shows.
Rice’s widely debunked remarks that cited protests over an anti-Islam video as the cause of the attack fueled the criticism of the administration and later cost her a chance at becoming secretary of state.
According to the 99 pages of emails, then CIA-Director David Petraeus objected to the final talking points because he wanted to see more details revealed to the public.
Petraeus’ deputy, Mike Morell, after a meeting at the White House on Saturday, Sept. 15, scratched out from the CIA’s early talking point drafts mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the Cairo embassy on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration and break-in by jihadists.
Petraeus apparently was displeased by the removal of so much of the material his analysts had proposed for release. The talking points were sent to Rice to prepare her for an appearance on news shows on Sunday, Sept. 16, and also to members of the House Intelligence Committee.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” Petraeus wrote after receiving Morell’s edited version, developed after an intense back-and-forth among Obama administration officials. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.”
The emails were partially blacked out, including removal of names of senders and recipients who are career employees at the CIA and elsewhere.
The emails show only minor edits were requested by the White House, and most of the objections came from the State Department. “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns,” read an email that a CIA official sent to Petraeus on Friday, Sept. 14.
Critics have highlighted an email by then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaida would give congressional Republicans ammunition to attack the administration in the weeks before the presidential election.
That email was among those released by the White House, sent by Nuland on Sept. 14 at 7:39 p.m. to officials in the White House, State Department and CIA. She wrote she was concerned they could prejudice the investigation and 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? Concerned.”
After Nuland sent several more emails throughout that Friday evening expressing further concerns, Jake Sullivan, then-deputy chief of staff at the State Department, said the issues would be worked out at a meeting at the White House on Saturday morning.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Wednesday that Morell made the changes to the talking points after that meeting because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the attacks.
The official said Morell also didn’t think it was fair to disclose the CIA’s advance warning without giving the State Department a chance to explain how it responded. The official spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorization to speak about the emails on the record. Petraeus declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
The intelligence official said Morell was aware of Nuland’s objections but did not make the changes under pressure from the State Department but because he independently shared the concerns.
That is contradicted in an email sent to Rice on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 1:23 p.m. by a member of her staff whose name was blacked out. The email said Morell indicated he would work with Sullivan and Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, to revise the talking points. The intelligence official disputed that assertion and insisted Morell acted alone.
An email from Morell also says he spoke to Petraeus “about State’s deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this.”
The White House released the full set of emails sent to Congress under the pressure in hopes of putting an end to the controversy that has dogged the administration for months. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that “these emails have been selectively and inaccurately read out to the media.”
At a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said there has been “very, very substantial progress” in the investigation into who was responsible for the attacks in Benghazi. Earlier this month, the FBI said it was seeking information on three people who were on the grounds of the diplomatic mission when it was attacked.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said of the emails, “I didn’t find anything that looked like a smoking gun in terms of political cooking of the talking points. There is very little input from the White House.”
But. he said: “There are some things to criticize in here. The State Department looks like it is trying to avoid blame.”
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
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