WASHINGTON — Political considerations influenced the talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department e-mails.
The latest disclosures Friday raised new questions about whether the Obama administration tried to play down any terrorist factor in the attack on a diplomatic compound just weeks before the November election. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed when insurgents struck the US mission.
The White House has insisted that it made only a ‘‘stylistic’’ change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.
Numerous agencies had engaged in an e-mail discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Rice for their public comments. In one e-mail, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamist extremists in Benghazi.
Nuland’s e-mail said such revelations ‘‘could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to [CIA] warnings,’’ according to a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of e-mails.
Statements on Benghazi attack
The final talking points that weekend reflected the work of several government agencies — CIA, FBI, State Department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence — apparently determined to cast themselves in the best light as the investigation was getting underway. A scathing independent report in December found that ‘‘systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels’’ of the State Department meant that security was ‘‘inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack.’’
Eight months after the attack, the dispute between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on the subject shows no sign of abating. The GOP argues that the administration tried to mislead Congress and the American people.
The White House insists that Republicans are trying to politicize the issue.
‘‘There’s an ongoing effort to make something political out of this,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday of the disclosure of the e-mails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers. ‘‘The problem with that effort is that it’s never been clear what it is they think they’re accusing the administration of doing.’’
Republicans have complained that the administration was trying to conceal that the attack was the work of terrorists. Such revelations just before the election perhaps could have undercut President Obama’s record on fighting terrorism, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The State Department e-mails and other internal administration deliberations were summarized last month in an interim report by Republicans on five House committees. New details about political concerns and the names of the administration officials who wrote the e-mails concerning the talking points emerged Friday.
Following Capitol Hill briefings, members of Congress asked the CIA for talking points to explain the assault, and the CIA put together an assessment. It said Islamist extremists with ties to Al Qaeda took part in the attack, cited reports linking the attack to the group Ansar al-Sharia, mentioned the experience of Libyan fighters, and referred to previous warnings of threats in Benghazi.
The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was deleted, but Nuland wrote later that night that changes she had seen ‘‘don’t resolve all my issues and those of my building leadership, they are consulting with NSS,’’ a reference to the National Security staff within the White House.
She also wrote that she had serious concerns about giving information to members of Congress ‘‘to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don’t want to prejudice the investigation.’’
Senior administration officials, including Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff at the State Department, and Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, met that Saturday morning to finalize the talking points.
Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell worked with the officials to produce a final set of talking points that deleted mentions of Al Qaeda, the experience of fighters in Libya and Islamist extremists, according to the congressional official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the e-mails.
The next day, Sept. 16, Rice appeared on the talk shows and said evidence gathered so far showed no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike. She said the attack in Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be a copycat of demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Cairo, spurred by accounts of a YouTube film attributed to a Californian mocking the Prophet Mohammad.
Administration officials said Friday they deleted the references to terror groups because it was then unclear — and still is — who was responsible for the attack.