Former CIA director David Petraeus addresses a University of Southern… (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY…)
The controversy over the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attack last year began at a meeting over coffee on Capitol Hill three days after the assault.
It was at this informal session with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the ranking Democrat asked David H. Petraeus, who was CIA director at the time, to ensure that committee members did not inadvertently disclose classified information when talking to the news media about the attack.
“We had some new members on the committee, and we knew the press would be very aggressive on this, so we didn’t want any of them to make mistakes,” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) said last week of his request in an account supported by Republican participants. “We didn’t want to jeopardize sources and methods, and we didn’t want to tip off the bad guys. That’s all.”
What Petraeus decided to do with that request is the pivotal moment in the controversy over the administration’s Benghazi talking points. It was from his initial input that all else flowed, resulting in 48 hours of intensive editing that congressional Republicans cite as evidence of a White House coverup.
A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency.
The information Petraeus ordered up when he returned to his Langley office that morning included far more than the minimalist version that Ruppersberger had requested. It included early classified intelligence assessments of who might be responsible for the attack and an account of prior CIA warnings — information that put Petraeus at odds with the State Department, the FBI and senior officials within his own agency.
The only government entity that did not object to the detailed talking points produced with Petraeus’s input was the White House, which played the role of mediator in the bureaucratic fight that at various points included the CIA’s top lawyer and the agency’s deputy director expressing opposition to what the director wanted.
“What [committee members] were looking for was the lowest common denominator,” said a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the editing process. “That’s not what the agency originally produced.”
Petraeus did not respond to e-mailed requests to clarify questions surrounding his role in drafting and reviewing the talking points. He resigned as CIA director in November after details of an extramarital affair became public.
At 9:42 p.m. Sept. 11, 2012, as violent anti-American demonstrations unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa over an anti-Islam video made in the United States, a group of armed men attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Recriminations in Washington began within hours. But it was not until a month later that it became clear that the CIA, rather than the State Department, maintained the most significant presence in Benghazi.
Near the diplomatic outpost was a CIA installation where about two dozen intelligence and security personnel were based. Their mission was to track weapons shipments out of the country and to identify the numerous militias operating in Benghazi.
Security at this annex was the responsibility of the CIA, not the State Department. But because the annex operated under diplomatic cover, its existence as an intelligence facility was classified.
The State Department and the White House became the primary focus of the public criticism.
The debate within the CIA
After Petraeus’s morning coffee on Sept. 14, the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis sent an internal agency e-mail with the subject line: “FLASH coordination — white paper for HPSCI,” referring to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The committee “has asked for unclassified points immediately that they can use in talking to the media,” the e-mail said.
Then, shifting into the first person, the office’s director, who had accompanied Petraeus to the coffee, wrote, “I have been asked to provide a bit on responsibility,” including “warnings we gave to Cairo prior to the demonstration, as well as material on warnings we issued prior to 9/11 anniversary.”
Included was a six-point draft that began, “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired” by anti-American demonstrations elsewhere “and evolved” into assaults against “the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex.”