Seven years after the September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, it is instructive to recall the Obama administration’s altering of the now infamous talking points utilized to essentially mislead the American public about the coordinated assault that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other US. Citizens.
The controversy surrounded the removal of references to terrorism while stressing an obscure anti-Islam film despite knowing it had little to nothing to do with the motivation for the assault. The Obama administration’s decision to publicize and even use taxpayer dollars to apologize for the Muhammad film while deceptively blaming it for the attacks likely helped to stir riots across the Islamic world by drawing attention to the previous unknown anti-Muhammad film.
Some of the same personalities involved in the Benghazi talking points scandal would later play central roles in the Obama-era intelligence community’s controversial investigation into collusion claims between Russia and President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The curious tale of the talking points began when U.S. intelligence officials testified behind closed doors in early November 2012 and were asked point blank whether they had altered the points on which then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice based her original statements to the public about the Benghazi attacks.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, Rice had appeared on five morning television programs to offer the official Obama administration 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.
Four days after Rice’s misinformation, Obama himself was questioned on Sep. 20, about whether the Benghazi attack was carried out by terrorists. He Obama responded, “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.” He was pressed at a town hall event hosted by Univision about whether al Qaeda was behind the assault, replying, “Well, we don’t know yet.”
It would later emerge the talking points were edited to remove references to “terrorism” and “al-Qaeda” in the attacks. The administration also removed information about at least five other previous attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi. An original draft stating, “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack” was changed to “we know that they [Islamic extremists] participated in the protests.” Another bullet changed the word “attack” to “violent demonstrations.”
Surveillance video from the mission later showed there were no significant popular protests on September 11, 2012. Greggory Hicks, the No. 2 U.S. official in Libya at the time of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks, testified that he knew immediately the attacks were terror strikes, not a protest turned violent. According to Hicks, “everybody in the mission” believed it was an act of terror “from the get-go.”
Two congressional sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Mike 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 committee 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 Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte and the late John McCain.
A statement by McCain, Graham and Ayotte specifically related 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 likely misleading claim was repeated to the news media. On Nov. 28, 2012, Sharyl Attkisson, then at CBS News, quoted the CIA stating 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, aka James Clapper, telling CBS News’ Margaret Brennan that Clapper’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 of the strange about face. “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,” Graham said in a statement.
An intelligence official called Morell’s change “an honest mistake and it was corrected as soon as it was realized. There is nothing more to this.” A U.S. intelligence official further told CBS News there was “absolutely no intent to misinform.” The official claimed 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.”
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 Brennan.
All of the sudden, in June 2013, Morell announced he was stepping down to spend more time with his family. In a statement, Morell acknowledged that his reason for stepping down may seem somewhat difficult to swallow, but “when I say that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that.” Morell served 33 years in the agency and was a frontrunner for CIA director. Morell later reemerged as a counselor to Beacon Global Strategies, a consult group particularly close to Hillary Clinton. The firm is led by Philippe I. Reines, who served from 2009 to 2013 as Clinton’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Strategic Communications and Senior Communications Advisor.
In February 2014 a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed that Morell was in receipt of critical information on Sep. 15, 2012, one day before Rice used the talking points publically. The report said that Morell and others at the CIA received an email from the CIA’s Libya station chief stating the attacks were “not/not an escalation of protests.” So on the same day Morell helped to edit the talking points by calling the attacks a “demonstration,” he received information from his own station chief clearly contradicting this claim. FoxNews.com quoted Sam Faddis, an expert on the U.S. intelligence community, explaining, “The chief of station is the senior intelligence officer for the entire United States government…You would really have to have some incredibly overwhelming factual evidence to disregard that and there is no indication of that in the report at all.”
In perhaps one of the most damning sections of a Republican House Interim Progress Report on the events in Benghazi, 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 Clinton State Department’s reputation.
“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 states, directly contradicting Morell’s claims.
The report charges that the talking points were “deliberately” edited to “protect the State Department.”
It is instructive to briefly quote 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.
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 (FBI) 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.
Deceiving the American public is bad enough. Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration’s decision to blame the Muhammad film for alleged protests served to further inflame the Islamic world against the U.S., leading to deadly rioting.
The administration even spent $70,000 in taxpayer funds on an ad campaign denouncing an anti-Muhammad film. The ads reportedly aired on seven Pakistani networks. They also came in response to protests in Pakistan that were reportedly a reaction to the film. However, it was the claim of popular protests in Benghazi at the time that garnered the biggest public reaction from the White House.
The Sept. 19, 2012, ads featured Obama and Hillary Clinton making statements against the film in the wake of the Benghazi attacks. “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation of respect, that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” Obama says in the ad, which was stamped “paid content.” Clinton then denies any official U.S. involvement in producing the “Innocence of Muslims” video. “We absolutely reject its contents,” she says.
Meanwhile, some of the same personalities involved in the Benghazi talking points scandal played key roles in perpetuating the Russia collusion narrative.
Clinton’s campaign, of course, funded the anti-Trump dossier produced by GPS and reportedly utilized by the FBI as a “roadmap” for its questionable collusion probe.
Brennan’s CIA reportedly convened a “secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI” that formed the early stages of the Russia probe, stages now under investigation by the Trump administration.
Brennan and Clapper were among the few Obama-era officials originally allowed access to the Russia intelligence, according to the Washington Post.
Disgraced ex-FBI Director James Comey, Brennan and Clapper are the subjects of a dispute over which top Obama administration officials advocated for the infamous, Clinton-funded Steele dossier to be utilized as evidence in the Russia collusion investigation. The argument recently erupted into the open with a Brennan surrogate being quoted in the news media opposing Comey not long after Attorney General William Barr appointed a U.S. attorney to investigate the origins of the Russia collusion claims.
Rice, also involved in the talking points scandal, was documented as being present in the Oval Office for a controversial briefing about the Russia probe. In an action characterized as “odd” last year by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Rice memorialized the confab in an email to herself describing Obama as starting “the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book.’”
In actions connected to the Russia investigation, Rice reportedly unmasked senior members of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
Joshua Klein contributed research to this article.
NOTE: Portions of this article were adopted from Klein’s book, “The Real Benghazi Story.”