The White House released more than 100 pages of e-mails on Wednesday in a bid to quell critics who say President Barack Obama and his aides played politics with national security following the deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The emails detail the complex back and forth between the CIA, State Department, and the White House in developing unclassified talking points that were used to underpin a controversial and slow-to-evolve explanation of events last Sept. 11.
The talking points have become a political flashpoint in a long-running battle between the Obama administration and Republicans, who accuse it of not bolstering security prior to the attack, of botching the response to it, and of misleading the public for political gain less than two months before the November election.
The GOP suggests that the administration removed specific terror references and stuck to an explanation -- later proved untrue -- that the attack was result of a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim film that was produced in the United States. There had been such a demonstration in Cairo.
The Benghazi attack killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The White House and its allies in Congress have made the case that any confusion and conflicting information in the early hours and days after the attacks stemmed from the "fog of war" -- not any deliberate effort to mislead the American people about the source of the attacks.
Obama has called Republican concentration on the talking points a political "side show."
Senior Obama administration officials contend the emails demonstrate the process of developing talking points for members of Congress to use in media interviews was not focused on politics but rather on events.
For instance, some of the emails expressed caution about what should be said publicly during an FBI investigation while others centered on the strength of intelligence at the time.
The White House said the emails it provided to inquiring lawmakers months ago and released on Wednesday aim to paint a fuller picture following what it described as a series of selective and inaccurate e-mails recently appearing in media reports.
"Collectively, these emails make clear that the interagency process, including the White House's interactions, were focused on providing the facts as we knew them based on the best information available at the time and protecting an ongoing investigation," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
The emails indicate the CIA was likely the lead organization in developing the talking points with the State Department recommending significant changes.
Changes made to talking points
Following the original drafting of them, CIA analysts made a handful of significant changes, according to administration sources.
In the CIA's original set, the first bullet point included a reference that the Benghazi attack was "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex."
It noted assessments could change "as additional information is collected and analyzed."
The second bullet point noted the attackers in Benghazi were comprised of "a mix of individuals from across many sections of Libyan society."
It specified that intelligence officials did not know whether Islamic extremists, including those aligned with al-Qaida, had participated in the attack.
This bullet was later changed after a CIA analyst questioned whether the current intelligence supported the assertion that extremists had participated in the attack.
Another CIA officer agreed, stating intelligence placed extremists at a protest but could not support the notion that extremists were responsible for the American deaths.
The editing team revised it so that talking point read, "The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. The investigation is on-going as to who is responsible. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
The second CIA change was to the swap out the word "attacks" with "demonstrations" in the first bullet point, which an administration source said was to eliminate an awkward and illogical account of events.
A third change the CIA made was to remove the name al-Qaida from the second talking point, which was done because it didn't want to get ahead of the FBI's investigation of the attack.
A key point of contention revolves around statements by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who took the most direct criticism because of her assertions in television interviews days after the attack that linked it to the demonstration.
State Department concern