JERUSALEM – Did CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell mislead lawmakers when he told senators in a briefing that references to terrorism and al-Qaida were removed from the White House’s Benghazi talking points in order to “prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation?”
The claim of scrubbing terrorism from White House talking points for security reasons was also made to the news media by other officials within the CIA and by the office of the Director for National Intelligence.
But those claims are now contradicted by a 46-page House Republican report probing the Benghazi attacks.
In perhaps one of the most damning but until now unreported sections of the report, lawmakers who penned the investigation wrote they were given access to classified emails and other communications that prove the talking points were not edited to protect classified information but instead to protect the State Department’s reputation.
“Contrary to administration rhetoric, the talking points were not edited to protect classified information,” states the Interim Progress Report for the Members of the House Republican Conference on the Events Surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012 Terrorist Attacks in Benghazi.
“Evidence rebuts administration claims that the talking points were modified to protect classified information or to protect an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),” the report continues.
The report charges that the talking points were “deliberately” edited to “protect the State Department.”
States the report: “To protect the State Department, the administration deliberately removed references to al-Qaida-linked groups and previous attacks in Benghazi in the talking points used by [United Nations] Ambassador [Susan] Rice, thereby perpetuating the deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative that the attacks evolved from a demonstration caused by a YouTube video.”
Intelligence officials’ claims
The tale of the talking points began when U.S. intelligence officials testified behind closed doors in early November 2012 and were reportedly asked point blank whether they had altered the talking points on which Rice based her comments about the Benghazi attacks.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, Rice had appeared on five morning television programs to discuss the White House response to the Benghazi attacks. In nearly identical statements, she asserted that the attacks were a spontaneous protest in response to a “hateful video.”
Other Obama administration officials made similar claims.
Two congressional sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Morell, then acting CIA director, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen each testified behind closed doors that they did not alter the talking points.
On Nov. 16, 2012, former CIA director David Petraeus testified before the same congressional intelligence committees and also replied no to the question of whether he had changed the talking points, three congressional sources told Reuters.
Then on Nov. 27 the CIA reportedly told lawmakers that it had in fact changed the wording of the unclassified talking points to delete a reference to al-Qaida, according to senators who met with Morell that day.
That Nov. 27 meeting was between Morell, Rice and Republican Sens John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte.
A statement by McCain, Graham and Ayotte specifically stated that Morell told the senators during the meeting that the FBI had removed references to al-Qaida from the talking points "and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation" of the attack on the U.S. mission.
The senators' joint statement specifically reads: "Around 10:00 this morning in a meeting requested by Ambassador Rice, accompanied by acting CIA Director Mike Morell, we asked Mr. Morell who changed the unclassified talking points to remove references to al-Qaida.
"In response, Mr. Morell said the FBI removed the references and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation. We were surprised by this revelation and the reasoning behind it."
Morell's claim of changing the talking points for security reasons is now contradicted by the new Republican probe.
Further, on Nov. 28, 2012, CBS News reported the CIA then told the news agency that the edits to the talking points were made "so as not to tip off al-Qaida as to what the U.S. knew, and to protect sources and methods."
That same report quoted a source from the Office of the Director for National Intelligence who told CBS News' Margaret Brennan that the source's office made the edits as part of the interagency process because the links to al-Qaida were deemed too "tenuous" to make public.
Meanwhile, a few hours after his meeting with the senators, Morell's office reportedly contacted Graham and stated that Morell "misspoke" in the earlier meeting and that it was, in fact, the CIA, not the FBI, that deleted the al-Qaida references.
"They were unable to give a reason as to why," stated Graham.
"CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaida references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why," said in a statement.
"This was an honest mistake and it was corrected as soon as it was realized. There is nothing more to this," an intelligence official said about Morell's briefing to the senators.
Graham at the time went so far as to suggest he would hold up the nomination of Morell if Obama had nominated him to be the CIA director, a position ultimately filled by John Brennon.
Georgia Sen. Clarence Saxby Chambliss defended Morell's statements.
"Mike was actually not the director when this (the attack on Benghazi) took place. And he's kind of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again," Chambliss told the media, calling Morell a "smart, straightforward guy."
A U.S. intelligence official further told CBS News there was "absolutely no intent to misinform."
The official says the talking points "were never meant to be definitive and, in fact, noted that the assessment may change. The points clearly reflect the early indications of extremist involvement in a direct result. It wasn't until after they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory information about how the assault began."
However, the intelligence community clearly at first portrayed the edited White House talking points as a bid to protect classified information.
Timeline of altered talking points
According to the interim House report on Benghazi, after a White House deputies meeting on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, the administration altered the talking points to remove references to the likely participation of Islamic extremists in the attacks.
The administration also removed references to the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaida in Benghazi and eastern Libya, including information about at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.
Charged the report: "Senior State Department officials requested – and the White House approved – that the details of the threats, specifics of the previous attacks, and previous warnings be removed to insulate the department from criticism that it ignored the threat environment in Benghazi."
The report authors said that they went through email exchanges of the interagency process to scrub the talking points. They wrote the emails do not reveal any concern with protecting classified information.
"Additionally, the bureau itself approved a version of the talking points with significantly more information about the attacks and previous threats than the version that the State Department requested. Thus, the claim that the State Department's edits were made solely to protect that investigation is not credible."
In a particularly stinging accusation, the report states that when draft talking points were sent to officials throughout the executive branch, senior State Department officials requested the talking points be changed "to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi."
"Specifically, State Department emails reveal senior officials had 'serious concerns' about the talking points, because members of Congress might attack the State Department for 'not paying attention to agency warnings' about the growing threat in Benghazi.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.