WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration released almost 100 pages of email traffic among officials at the White House, the CIA and the State Department that formed the basis for talking points used in the days after the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The documents show the internal debate over how to describe the Sept. 11, 2012, assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The emails show the Central Intelligence Agency made the major revisions to the talking points as they were developed and before they were delivered to Congress and supplied to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.
The email release had been sought by Republicans in Congress, who have accused the administration of tailoring the talking points to deflect criticism of Obama in the weeks before last year's presidential election. A previously disclosed email from then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaida would give congressional Republicans ammunition.
The administration has insisted that it made only "stylistic" changes to an account originally drafted by the CIA.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the emails don't contradict the conclusions of an interim House report that the State Department sought changes to avoid criticism for ignoring threats in the area.
"The seemingly political nature of the State Department's concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them," Buck said in an email.
In a briefing for reporters, administration officials described the interagency process that produced the talking points as routine.
Mike Morell, deputy director at the CIA, shepherded the talking points through the process and made the final edits, according to the officials. While the State Department shared some of his concerns, such as the inclusion of previous warnings by the CIA about extremists in eastern Libya, Morell insisted on many of the edits independently, according to one official.
References to al-Qaida were removed while the document was still being drafted by the CIA, said one official. It was eventually replaced with "Islamic extremist" in the final draft.
The product that was eventually approved left then-CIA director David Petraeus disappointed.
"Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this," he wrote after reviewing the talking points on the afternoon of Sept. 15. "This is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get," he wrote, referring to Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Petraeus wanted to see more detail publicly released, including a warning issued from the CIA on the eve of the Libya attack about plans for a break-in at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters that Morell made the changes to the talking points because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the Benghazi attack.
The official said Morell also didn't think it was fair to disclose the CIA's warning without giving the State Department a chance to explain how it responded.