Dozens of e-mails released by the White House reveal that Obama administration officials were behind the crafting of a false narrative about the attack in Benghazi, Libya. The communications raise questions about who called the shots and why, say an analyst and a lawmaker involved in the investigation.
According to the documents, officials at the State Department, CIA and White House national security staff heavily revised a CIA memo to remove all references to Islamist extremists known to have participated in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.
The revisions also removed the CIA's claims that the agency had issued repeated warnings to the State Department about the threat of al-Qaeda-linked militants in Benghazi.
Among the unknowns:
•Why were the revisions made?
•Why did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testify before Congress that the edits were a product of the intelligence community when State officials had made many of the requests for alterations?
•Why did the White House say it made no substantive edits when the e-mails show officials there helped lead the process for changes?
•Where did the story come from that the attack grew from a protest against an anti-Islam video? The video was mentioned once in 100 pages of e-mails, but it was a central theme of Obama's and Clinton's description of the event.
"It's widely accepted as fact now that what the White House was spewing was demonstrably false," says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "I think there was clarity in the beginning, but it became obscured by fiction over the course of time."
President Obama acknowledged during a news conference Thursday that "there's been intense discussion in Congress lately about the attacks in Benghazi." He said he is intent on doing everything in the government's power to prevent a similar tragedy, and he is increasing security and military presence at high risk diplomatic posts. Congress should "come together" to provide needed funding, he said.
The e-mails from Sept. 14-15 show that the State Department was "the key driving force for the revisions," says Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy in Washington.
The White House has since acknowledged what the CIA stated from the beginning: The Benghazi attack was a planned terrorist attack.
Chaffetz says many more documents need to be released to explain why the truth didn't come out right away.
Major revisions to the CIA memo were requested by Victoria Nuland, then-spokeswoman for the State Department, who said changes were needed to "resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership." The e-mails do not state what leaders she referred to.
Protests to the video "came to be the central focal point" of the administration's explanation of how the attack happened, Chaffetz says, but no such protest happened outside the consulate.
Chaffetz says it's "a mystery that only the White House can clarify."
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, used the final version of the CIA memo when she went on talk shows Sept. 16 and blamed the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others on the protests.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, said the e-mails show that State Department and other administration officials altered the memo "to protect the FBI's ongoing criminal investigation and our nation's intelligence operations."
He accused Republicans of making "reckless accusations" that the White House scrubbed the talking points for political reasons.
Yet another question is why then-CIA chief David Petraeus, who expressed displeasure with the final talking points, did not act more forcefully to prevent the watered down version of his memo from being presented to lawmakers and the public.
"As CIA director, he has an ability to shape the narrative, and if he thinks the narrative is incorrect, he has a duty to speak up," Joscelyn said.
Though White House spokesman Jay Carney has insisted the White House made almost no changes to the original memo, the e-mails show that Tommy Vietor, then-spokesman for the White House's national security adviser, wanted State Department concerns about the memo to be addressed.
Members of Congress "all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings. ... We need to brief members/press and correct the record,"Vietor wrote in an e-mail Sept. 14.
Nuland said in e-mails that the CIA memo's references to previous terrorist activity near the consulate and in the region could be construed by Congress as evidence that the State Department ignored the safety of its staff in Benghazi.
The CIA retorted in the e-mails that the FBI "did not have major concerns" with the memo's findings. Evidence for its conclusions that the attack was preplanned by an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group came from the claims of terror group Ansar al-Sharia and witness accounts forwarded by the CIA station chief in Tripoli.
Even top State officials had acknowledged that fact before the process to edit it out began, Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz said one e-mail, which was sent the day after the attack by Beth Jones, State's acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, to several high ranking State Department officials, described how she corrected the Libyan ambassador to the United States for suggesting the Benghazi attack may have been perpetrated by loyalists to ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Jones wrote to her supervisors, Chaffetz says, that the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan group Ansar al-Sharia was behind the attack.
Oren Dorell, USA TODAY