US intelligence agencies faulted for Libya fallout
WASHINGTON—A Senate report has found that the White House did not make major changes in the script that Obama administration officials used after the attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Some opposition Republicans had questioned whether President Barack Obama’s staff rewrote the statements for political reasons.
Instead, the report cited changes made by intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, in its probe of the confusing explanations that came from the Obama administration.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attack in Libya. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said she used the talking points to say in interviews on Sept. 16 that the attack may have been a protest that got out of hand.
The report Monday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the White House was only responsible for a minor change in those talking points.
The committee, led by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, also said the director of national intelligence had been stonewalling the panel in holding back a promised timeline of the script changes.
Rice’s incorrect explanation may have cost her a chance to be nominated as the next secretary of state, as Senate Republicans publicly said they would not vote to confirm her. Obama instead nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is expected to win easy confirmation.
The State Department last month acknowledged major weaknesses in security and errors in judgment that were exposed in a scathing independent report on the assault.
Testifying before two congressional committees, senior State Department officials acknowledged that serious management and leadership failures left the diplomatic mission in Benghazi woefully unprepared for the terrorist attack. The State Department review board’s report prompted four of its officials to resign.
The Senate report said that on Sept. 19, eight days after the attack, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told the Homeland committee that the four Americans died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”
The same day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the department stood by the intelligence community’s assessment. The next day, Sept. 20, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said, “It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also used the words “terrorist attack” on Sept. 21.
Olsen’s acknowledgement was important, the report said, because talking points prepared by intelligence officials the previous week had undergone major changes.
A line saying “we know” that individuals associated with al-Qaida or its affiliates participated in the attacks was changed to say, “There are indications that extremists participated.”
The talking points dropped the reference to al-Qaida and its affiliates altogether. In addition, a reference to “attacks” was changed to “demonstrations.”
The committee said the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and representatives from the CIA, State Department, National Counterterrorism Center and FBI told the panel that the changes were made within the CIA and the intelligence community. The change from “we know” there was an al-Qaida connection to “indications” of connections to “extremists” was requested by the FBI.
The report said the only White House change substituted a reference of “consulate” to “mission.”
Intelligence officials differed over whether the al-Qaida reference should remain classified, the report said. It added, however, that the analyst who drafted the original talking points was a veteran career analyst in the intelligence community who believed it was appropriate to include a reference to al-Qaida in the unclassified version.
The analyst came to that conclusion because of claims of responsibility by a militant group, Ansar al-Sharia.
The committee said Clapper offered to provide the committee a detailed timeline on the development of the talking points. Despite repeated requests, the committee said the information has not been provided.
The report added that if the administration had described the attack as a terrorist assault from the outset, “there would have been much less confusion and division in the public response to what happened there on Sept. 11, 2012.”
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