WASHINGTON – Authorities with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the CIA, decided to remove the terms “attack,” “al-Qaida” and “terrorism” from unclassified guidance provided to the Obama administration several days after militants attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a senior official said Tuesday.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, relied on the so-called talking points when she appeared on several Sunday TV talk shows five days after the Sept. 11 attacks in eastern Libya. She asserted that the violence, which killed four Americans, erupted out of a protest to a film made in the U.S. that mocked Islam.
Critics accused Rice and other administration officials of twisting the intelligence for political reasons when it later emerged that the CIA had concluded that the lethal assault involved militants, some of whom had links to al-Qaida’s North African affiliate. The White House has argued that Rice was relying on information provided by the CIA and other agencies and didn’t deviate from it.
U.S. intelligence officials supported the administration claims Tuesday, contending that language in the talking points was changed by intelligence officers to protect information that was classified at the time.
“Early drafts of the talking points included several analytic judgments that were debated and adjusted during the internal intelligence community coordination process,” said the senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue involved classified material.
“The adjustments were focused on producing talking points that provided the best information available at the time, protected sensitive details and reflected the evolving nature of rapidly incoming intelligence.”
If intelligence professionals were responsible for the changes, it might dispel charges from some Republicans that political operatives at the White House had manipulated the narrative to downplay the possibility of an al-Qaida attack when the Obama administration was campaigning on its successes in degrading the terrorist group.
One of the most vocal critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was “somewhat surprised and frustrated” Tuesday after CBS broke the news.