WASHINGTON -- The State Department requested that key information be deleted from controversial talking points about the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. outposts in eastern Libya, not because of concern about revealing intelligence secrets but because the information revealed that the State Department had not responded properly to a growing extremist threat, Republican lawmakers have charged in a report released Tuesday.
Citing a review of emails by its investigators, the House Republican Conference said the White House agreed to the deletions in an effort that was "focused more on protecting the reputation and credibility of the State Department than on explaining to the American people the facts" of the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and nearby CIA annex.
The White House has said that the changes were to protect classified information, but the Republican report said email messages investigators reviewed found no such discussion. Instead, according to the report, emails showed that State Department officials had "serious concerns" about the original talking points, leaving the administration vulnerable to criticism for "not paying attention to Agency warnings" about the growing threat in eastern Libya.
The report did not provide copies of the original email traffic, making it difficult to assess its accuracy.
Democrats call the continued Republican preoccupation with Benghazi political grandstanding.
An independent review board already had found serious flaws in the way the State Department operated in the high-risk environment of Benghazi, but Republican members of Congress were angry that the panel didn't assign blame all the way up to the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They dubbed Tuesday's report an "interim progress report," and included a laundry list of other areas of investigation they'll tackle next, signaling that they intend to keep pushing the matter.
"This progress report reveals a fundamental lack of understanding at the highest levels of the State Department as to the dangers presented in Benghazi, Libya, as well as a concerted attempt to insulate the Department of State from blame following the terrorist attacks," the report said.
For months, Republicans have focused on the talking points, which were the basis for television appearances by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice four days after the Benghazi attacks. In her appearances, Rice said that the attacks were an outgrowth of a demonstration protesting an Internet video that maligned the Prophet Muhammad -- a version of events that subsequently proved untrue.
The report said that investigators pored through email traffic and found that the drafting of the talking points was a joint effort involving the White House, the State Department and intelligence agencies.
According to the sequence presented in the report:
The CIA drafted the initial version of the unclassified talking points and floated it for clearance with the White House. That draft included references to al-Qaida-related extremists operating in the area and noted that foreign targets had been attacked in Benghazi five times since April 2012. At that stage, State Department officials asked to alter the language but weren't satisfied with some minor tweaks, with one unidentified official emailing that the edits didn't "resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership."
That day, Sept. 14, White House officials replied to the email thread, stating that State's concerns must be taken into account and that the matter would be discussed again at a meeting the next day. At the subsequent meeting, a small group of State Department and CIA officials modified the talking points; the actual edits were made by what the report calls "a current high-ranking CIA official."
Finally, the report states, the FBI approved a version of the talking points that added back in some information on the attacks and threats in the area.
Rice used the modified talking points when she appeared on five Sunday talk shows after the attacks, "thereby perpetuating the deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative that the attacks evolved from a demonstration caused by a YouTube video," the report said.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., made it clear that Republicans would continue their probe of Benghazi even though Clinton is now gone. Rohrabacher repeated the allegations of "a cover-up of some kind of wrongdoing" and asked Clinton's successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, to commit to helping investigators find out who was evacuated from the scene in Benghazi and what they knew about the sequence of events.
A visibly exasperated Kerry agreed to appoint a State Department employee to work directly with House Republicans to address their questions.
Kerry, however, denied that the State Department had been uncooperative.
"The administration had testified eight times, has briefed 20 times, Secretary Clinton spent five hours answering questions before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 25,000 documents have already been turned over, video of the actual event has been made available for members to see," he said.
"I don't think anybody lied to anybody," Kerry told the committee. "And let's find out exactly, together, what happened, because we need -- we got a lot more important things to move on to and get done."