The newly-revealed Benghazi emails obtained by ABC News reflect a bureaucratic turf war between the CIA and the State Department, according to administration officials with access to the emails.
The controversy over the editing of the CIA’s Benghazi talking points centers on emails in which State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made requests to remove references of the al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia and delete references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi ahead of the Sept. 11 attack. In the extensive back-and-forth — the talking points were edited 12 times — Nuland noted that the information "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned."
Elaborating Friday on the exchange, an official speaking to The Cable says that the CIA’s inclusion of "selectively noted Agency warnings" of terrorist threats in Benghazi ran the risk of igniting a media blame game that could serve to exonerate the CIA at the expense of the State Department.
"[Nuland] wanted to ensure interagency consistency of messaging," said the official. "[The CIA] selectively noted Agency warnings in a manner which might have led Congress to believe the State Department had ignored them. This appeared to encourage a blame game before the investigation was complete. She did not make changes to the points. Rather, she asked for higher level interagency review, which the White House agreed was necessary. She played no further role in the handling of these points."
Perhaps most controversial in the email trail posted by ABC is one in which Nuland says "my buildings leadership" is not satisfied with the talking points, though there is no evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or her top aides were part of the email exchanges. Ben Rhodes, the top White House communications advisor on the National Security Council, was on the chain – and he effectively ended the long back and forth over the talking points by saying there needed to be a White House meeting on them the next day, which there was (and about which not much is yet known.)
Meantime, a blame game between the CIA and the State Department is in fact what did later emerge following revelations that the two agencies had a shared security arrangement in Benghazi. As a November Wall Street Journal report explained, the two agencies had a "symbiotic" relationship in which the State Department consulate served as cover for CIA staff, meanwhile, "The State Department believed it had a formal agreement with the CIA to provide backup security."
Update: A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the drafting of the talking points tells The Cable the CIA had no intention of making the State Department look bad, and was not engaged in a "turf battle."
"The changes don’t reflect a turf battle," said the official. "They were attempts to find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation."
Interestingly, the official went on to defend Nuland’s request that references to al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia be erased from the CIA’s original talking points.
"Overall, the changes were made to address intelligence and legal issues," said the official. "First, the information about individuals linked to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources. Second, when early links are tenuous, it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions and reporting. Finally, it is important to take care not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages."
You can read the full email trail here:
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |