Damaging new revelations continue to undermine the Obama administration as Congress prepares to resume hearings examining the response to the September 11, 2012, attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead including the U.S. ambassador.
There are new details that administration officials misled the public in its initial public assessments of the attack, withheld relevant information that may have been politically damaging, waged “subtle intimidation” campaigns against multiple government employees who sought to testify about the attack, and neglected evidence in its own internal investigation of the attack and its aftermath.
The new revelations, made ahead of next week’s House Oversight Committee hearing, have propelled the Benghazi issue back into the news cycle and reopened a politically uncomfortable wound for the White House and possible 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The CIA talking points on which administration officials relied during initial public interviews were edited multiple times to remove references to al Qaeda and terrorism at the behest of State Department and White House officials, according to emails obtained by congressional investigators.
Two of these officials were former State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland and White House national security official Ben Rhodes, the Weekly Standard reported Friday.
Nuland said her superiors were not happy with the talking points and were concerned Congress would use them against the State Department, according to the Standard. She did not name the superiors.
The emails were quoted in a recent congressional report suggesting former Secretary of State Clinton had an interest in downplaying the consulate attack since she had approved a plan to reduce security at the U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya in April 2012.
The talking points originally stated the government “know[s] that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.” The final draft was reportedly edited to remove references to al Qaeda, and “Islamic extremists” was changed to just “extremists.”
The term “attack” was replaced with “demonstrations.”
State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell declined to comment during a press briefing Friday when asked about Nuland’s involvement and why details about al Qaeda were removed.
“We regularly discuss our public messaging with our interagency counterparts, that’s part of what happens in the interagency,” said Ventrell. “We’re not going to get into the details … of our internal deliberative process on these. We continue to be transparent with the congress, and have been, and shared thousands of documents. Talking points is something that they’ve looked into.”
Other aspects of the administration’s narrative have also come under scrutiny this week. The administration has said there were no forces close enough to get to the mission in time.
“It is not reasonable, nor feasible, to tether U.S. forces at the ready to respond to protect every high-risk post in the world,” former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen told Congress last December.
But an anonymous special operations officer said in an interview with Fox News Channel this week that the United States had forces in the region and could have intervened to stop the assault on the diplomatic mission.
“We had the ability to load out, get on birds and fly there, at a minimum stage,” he told Fox News. “C-110 had the ability to be there, in my opinion, in a matter of about four hours … four to six hours.”
There are also new concerns that witnesses to the attack have been discouraged from speaking out. Three State Department employees and one CIA employee have faced a “subtle intimidation campaign” by administration officials, as they prepare to testify at the upcoming hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to an attorney for one of the witnesses.
“They’re not telling them they’re going to put them through the guillotine tomorrow,” attorney Victoria Toensing, told the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday. “It’s subtle intimidation.”
Toensing said this includes suggestions employees who testify about Benghazi might lose their jobs, get passed over for promotions or be pushed into early retirement.
The Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack, who has represented whistle-blowers at the State Department and CIA, called the alleged intimidation “classic whistleblower reprisal.”
Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) told the Free Beacon Friday that such pressure could discourage witnesses from testifying unless they are subpoenaed.
“If you’re in your mid-50s and you have a couple kids, and you’re working for federal agencies … you’re not going to risk your job to come forward unless you’re subpoenaed,” said Wolf. “You have to have that subpoena power and right now they haven’t used that subpoena power. You can jeopardize your career.”
Meanwhile, the State Department inspector general has launched an investigation into an internal panel tasked with reviewing the State Department’s response to the attack, Fox News reported Thursday.
Clinton had convened the Accountability Review Board (ARB), led by Mullen and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, to investigate security lapses and errors by the State Department that left the Benghazi mission vulnerable to attack. The White House has repeatedly referred to the review board’s investigation when questioned about the attack.
Now the State Department’s top watchdog has launched a review of the review board, which has been accused of ignoring accounts from key witnesses and failing to run a complete investigation.
State Department officials have downplayed the inspector general investigation, characterizing it as a general review of the ARB process going back decades.
The White House, which was previously accused of slow-rolling the Benghazi investigation until after last November’s election, is now downplaying it as old news.
“Let’s be clear,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday. “Benghazi happened a long time ago. We are unaware of any agency blocking an employee who would like to appear before Congress to provide information related to Benghazi.”
But there is no indication the issue will disappear anytime soon. The FBI released photos Thursday of three men who were allegedly at the Benghazi mission on the night of the attack.
“The FBI is now asking Libyans and people around the world for additional information related to the attacks,” the FBI said in a statement, adding that the three men might be able to provide information on the attack but stopping short of calling them suspects.
The House Oversight Committee will resume its hearings into the administration’s response to Benghazi next Wednesday.
Senior writer Adam Kredo contributed reporting.