(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN Security) — To really understand the push-pull over the bungled talking points in the wake of the Benghazi attack, you have to understand the nature of the U.S. presence in that city.
Officially, the U.S. presence was a diplomatic compound under the State Department’s purview.
But in practice – and this is what so few people have focused on – the larger U.S. presence was in a secret outpost operated by the CIA.
About 30 people were evacuated from Benghazi the morning after the deadly attack last September 11; more than 20 of them were CIA employees.
Clearly the larger mission in Benghazi was covert.
The CIA had two objectives in Libya: countering the terrorist threat that emerged as extremists poured into the unstable country, and helping to secure the flood of weapons after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi that could have easily been funneled to terrorists.
The State Department was the public face of the weapons collection program.
“One of the reasons that we and other government agencies were present in Benghazi is exactly that. We had a concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover as many MANPADS [man-portable air defense systems], and other very dangerous weapons as possible,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress in January.
The CIA’s role during and after the attacks at the diplomatic post and the CIA annex in Benghazi have so far escaped much scrutiny.
The focus has been on the failure of the State Department to heed growing signs of the militant threat in the city and ensure adequate security, and on the political debate over why the White House seemed to downplay what was a terrorist attack in the weeks before the presidential election.
But the public needs to know more about the agency’s role, said Republican congressman Frank Wolf, of Virginia.
“There are questions that must be asked of the CIA and this must be done in a public way,” said Wolf.
Sources at the State Department say this context explains why there was so much debate over those talking points. Essentially, they say, the State Department felt it was being blamed for bungling what it saw as largely a CIA operation in Benghazi.
Current and former U.S. government officials tell CNN that then-CIA director David Petraeus and others in the CIA initially assessed the attack to have been related to protests against an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.
They say Petraeus may have been reluctant to conclude it was a planned attack because that would have been acknowledging an intelligence failure.
Internally at the CIA, sources tell CNN there was a big debate after the attacks to acknowledge that the two former Navy SEALs killed – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – were CIA employees. At a 2010 attack in Khost, Afghanistan, when seven CIA officers were killed in the line of duty, the agency stepped forward and acknowledged their service and sacrifice. But in this instance – for reasons many in the Obama administration did not fully understand – it took the CIA awhile to “roll back their covers.” Petraeus did not attend their funerals.
Wolf said he and his office are getting calls from CIA officials who want to talk and want to share more.
“If you’re 50 years old and have two kids in college, you’re not going to give your career up by coming in, so you also need subpoena power,” said the Republican congressman. “Let people come forward, subpoena them to give them the protection so they can’t be fired.”
But is the secrecy surrounding the CIA’s presence in Benghazi the reason for the administration’s fumble after fumble when trying to explain what happened the night of the attack?
There were 12 versions of talking points before a watered down product was agreed upon– suggesting an inter-government squabble over words that would ultimately lay the blame on one agency, or the other.
Perhaps the State Department did not want to get in the line of fire for a CIA operation that they in many ways were just the front for, the CIA “wearing their jacket,” as one current government official put it.
The CIA did have an informal arrangement to help the mission if needed, but it was not the primary security for the mission. The State Department had hired local guards for protection.
People at the CIA annex did respond to calls for help the night of the attack. But despite being only a mile away, it took the team 20 to 30 minutes to get there. Gathering the appropriate arms and other resources was necessary.
None of this diminishes questions about how the White House, just weeks before the presidential election, seemed to downplay that this was a terrorist attack. Or the State Department’s initial refusal to acknowledge that it had not provided adequate security for its own officials there.
But the role of the CIA, its clear intelligence failure before the attack, and – as it continued to push the theory of the anti-Muslim video – after the attack, bears more scrutiny as well.
The White House on Wednesday released 100 pages of e-mails documenting the correspondence and revisions made to the talking points about the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya.
The e-mails show that after an interagency meeting at the White House, Obama administration officials crossed out sections of the initial narrative provided by the CIA to be disseminated to the public, removing any mention of terrorism and the name of an al-Qaeda-linked group whose members the CIA said were involved.
Several early versions of the CIA’s talking points said that a day before the attack, radicals in Cairo had called for a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt “encouraging Jihadists to break into the Embassy.”
The final version was a shadow of the original, with no language about warnings provided by the CIA up until the day before the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
After reviewing the final version, David Petraeus, then-director of the CIA, questioned removing many details from the document. “No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” he asked in an e-mail. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.”
The White House had until now declined to make the documents public and had let congressional investigators review the documents without making copies.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said the documents were released to clear up what he called inaccurate descriptions of the process by members of Congress.
“Collectively these e-mails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House’s interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation,” Schultz said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the documents “undercut the reckless accusations by Republicans that the White House scrubbed the Benghazi talking points for political reasons.”
Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “Americans deserve to know … why their government sought to mislead them after the attacks.”
The documents describe how the administration developed “talking points” to describe what the administration wanted to discuss publicly in the days after the attack.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice used the talking points Sept. 16, when she went on Sunday talk shows and blamed the attack on a spontaneous demonstration by people upset over an anti-Islam film. Gregory Hicks, a State Department official who were in Libya during the attack and Stevens’ second in command, testified before the House Oversight Committee last week that no protest preceded the attack in Benghazi.
The initial CIA version of the talking points included the line: “We do know that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations,” and said initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda-linked group based in Benghazi.
State Department officials had said the talking points were changed to protect an FBI investigation and sensitive intelligence.
In the e-mails, Victoria Nuland, then-spokeswoman for the State Department, and Tommy Vietor, then-spokesman for the White House National Security Council, say the talking points should knock down what they called unproven or inaccurate information being disseminated by members of Congress about who was involved in the attack and that it was premeditated.
“There is massive disinformation out there, in particular with Congress,” Vietor wrote. “They all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings.”
Nuland asked “Why do we want Hill to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren’t doing that ourselves until we have investigation results?”
The point “could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying to Agency (CIA) warnings so why do we want to feed that either?” she wrote.
In an email sent at 9:52 p.m. Sept. 14, however, someone at CIA wrote that the talking points process has “run into major problems.” The FBI approved and the White House “cleared quickly,” it says. “But State has major concerns.”
The talking at that point said “the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex.”
While the investigation “is on-going” that version said, “there are indications that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
It also said the CIA had warned the U.S. Embassy in Cairo Sept. 10, the day before the attack, that social media reports called for a demonstration “encouraging Jihadists to break into the Embassy.”
The warning about a planned attack in Cairo was referring to a demonstration that had been planned for days by the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to culminate on Sept. 11. It’s significant because it shows that radicals with ties to al-Qaeda were plotting to storm the embassy in advance, without mention of any film, says Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“If it wasn’t a spontaneous mob reaction in Cairo, why are you assuming it was a spontaneous mob in Benghazi? It doesn’t make any sense,” Joscelyn said.
While mention of the demonstration and protests remained in the final version, language about warnings and the involvement of known Islamic extremist did not survive editing at a so-called deputies meeting at the White House the next day.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, lawmakers asked Attorney General Eric Holder if the FBI’s Benghazi investigation has produced any results.
Holder said “definitive action has been taken” in its investigation into the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Holder declined to elaborate on the nature of the action, except to suggest that it could be made public soon.
Holder said federal authorities have “taken steps that are definitive and concrete.”
“We are prepared to reveal shortly what we have done,” Holder said. “We are in a good position with regard to that investigation,” he said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson