The Talking Point Tiff

DNI changed CIA talking points to omit terror links
James Clapper / AP

James Clapper / AP

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The office of director of national intelligence James Clapper changed the CIA’s draft talking points on the Sept. 11 Benghazi terrorist attack to omit references to al Qaeda as being linked to the attack, according to a U.S. official.

The changes resulted in U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice telling five Sunday television interview shows that the attack was caused by a spontaneous demonstration and not a coordinated terror attack on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attack on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

According to an intelligence official, an official in Clapper’s office changed the CIA’s initial talking points that stated a militia linked to al Qaeda carried out the raid by several dozen Libyan Islamist terrorists.

However, in the ODNI office the mention of the al Qaeda links was removed and replaced with a more vague reference to “extremists”—the more politically correct term used widely within the Obama administration to identify Islamist terrorists.

Congressional Republicans have said the changed CIA guidance is evidence of the administration politicizing intelligence in what appeared to be an attempt to play down or minimize the growing threat of al Qaeda in North Africa prior to the Nov. 6 elections.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) criticized ODNI for the comments linking the intelligence community to the changed talking point.

“I am somewhat surprised and frustrated to read reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was responsible for removing references to al Qaeda from the unclassified talking points about the Benghazi attack that Ambassador Susan Rice and other officials used in the early days after September 11, 2012,” McCain said in a statement.

The senator said he took part in hours of hearings in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week trying to find out who was responsible for spreading inaccurate information.

During the hearings, “senior intelligence officials were asked this very question, and all of them—including the Director of National Intelligence himself—told us that they did not know who made the changes,” McCain said.

“Now we have to read the answers to our questions in the media,” he said. “There are many other questions that remain unanswered. But this latest episode is another reason why many of us are so frustrated with, and suspicious of, the actions of this administration when it comes to the Benghazi attack.”

McCain and other lawmakers have called for the creation of a special congressional committee to investigate the security and intelligence failures related to Benghazi.

Asked about the ODNI role in changing the CIA talking points, first disclosed by CBS News, ODNI spokesman Shawn Turner said it is “misleading” to say someone in ODNI changed the talking points, although he did not deny that it was done within that agency.

“It was the collective feedback from [intelligence community] officials that contributed to the final set of talking points,” Turner said in an email. “It is only accurate to say that the IC made the adjustments.”

Critics within the government have said the changed CIA assessment led to the Obama administration providing misleading information to the American people.

An intelligence official critical of the administration’s handling of Benghazi said congressional investigators could easily determine if intelligence on the attack was suppressed by examining electronic communications from the CIA station chief in Tripoli to David Petraeus, who was CIA director at the time but who resigned as the result of an extramarital affair earlier this month.

Members of Congress said Petraeus told the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees last week that the initial draft of the talking points was sent to the State and Justice Departments as well as to ODNI.

“If it went to all those, it certainly went to the 24/7 office in the White House also, most likely [National Security Council] staff,” the official said, noting that “there are many email trails the House is going to have to demand, as well as the emails that were sent as a result of the CIA emails.”

This official said he did not believe a career intelligence official would risk changing the talking points to cut out references to al Qaeda.

“Any changes would have to be made by a political operative within the executive branch,” the official said. “Therefore, the talking points presented by Amb. Rice were not the best intelligence as she and numerous White House political operatives have said. They were political points used by the White House as part of a disinformation operation against the American voter in order not to contradict the President’s propaganda line on al Qaeda.”

Obama said during the Democratic National Convention that al Qaeda was on “the path to defeat” as the result of his policies.

Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in addition to Rice, repeated false statements attributing the attack in Benghazi to an anti-Muslim video for weeks.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.

Obama has declined to say directly what steps he took in response to the attack and whether requests to send a rescue force to Benghazi were stopped.

Three senior Republican members of Congress on Sunday said the administration changed CIA guidance that had identified the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi as an al Qaeda attack but so far could not determine who made the changes.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said senior administration officials were behind the changes.

“The intelligence community had it right, and they had it right early,” Rogers said.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes on Saturday said the White House made minor changes. “The only edit made by the White House was the factual edit about how to refer to the facility”—changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility.”

“Other than that, we were guided by the points that were provided by the intelligence community,” Rhodes said. “So I can’t speak to any other edits that may have been made.”

According to Rogers, a “deputies committee” of senior officials made the changes. He said the committee is “populated by appointees from the administration. That’s where the narrative changed.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) also said on Sunday that the senior intelligence and security officials did not know who made the changes.

“At the hearing we had on Thursday and Friday, we had every leader of the intelligence community there, including folks from the State Department, the FBI, everybody there was asked, do you know who made these changes? And nobody knew,” Chambliss said on Fox News Sunday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Meet the Press that the intelligence was altered for political reasons.

“I think one of the reasons that Susan Rice told the story she did, if the truth came out a few weeks before the election that our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been overrun by an al Qaeda-sponsored or -affiliated militia, that destroys the narrative we’ve been hearing for months that al Qaeda has been dismantled, bin Laden’s dead, we’re safer,” Graham said.

Graham noted that Rice did not limit her comments to asserting a mob carried out the attack over anger at the anti-Muslim video. Instead, Rice insisted during one interview on CBS Face the Nation that Obama had promised to go after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and that “al Qaeda’s been dismantled.”

Rogers did not go so far as to say the intelligence of an al Qaeda attack was the result of a “cover up” by the administration and said such an accusation needed to be proven first.