Benghazi row: Focus on edited memo
19 November 2012, 12:21
Washington - The row over the assault on the US mission in Libya has narrowed to focus on how and why the CIA's determination that it was a terror attack was left out of a public "talking points" memo.
Armed militants stormed the US mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi on 11 September in a co-ordinated assault at two different locations over several hours that left US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
President Barack Obama alluded to the attack being an "act of terror" almost immediately, but senior administration officials then started suggesting it resulted spontaneously from protests at an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube.
In hearings in Congress on Friday, former CIA chief David Petraeus, in his first public outing since his humbling resignation due to an extramarital affair with his biographer, said he knew from the start it was terrorism.
Rather than putting the matter to rest, his remarks - which sounded very different depending on whether you believed the Republican or Democratic interpretations after the closed-door hearings - just raised more questions.
Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, vowed on Sunday to investigate why Petraeus' conclusion was not reflected in CIA "talking points" used by the administration to inform the public days later.
Partisan fight looming
The stakes of the row are high as Obama mulls picking US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice as his next secretary of state despite the fact that Republicans accuse her of misleading the public over Benghazi.
If he does and Republicans dig their heels in during the Senate confirmation process, a bitter partisan fight looms at the start of Obama's second term just when he is looking to bridge the Washington divide on budget talks and possible immigration reforms.
Rice, seen as the up-and-coming star of US diplomacy prior to Benghazi, fell into the Republican crosshairs when she took to the Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack at the behest of the White House.
She said initial intelligence indicated that the assault arose "spontaneously" out of "copycat" protests like the ones in Cairo, and that the attack did not appear to be pre-planned or premeditated.
Leading Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said it was obvious the attacks were carefully orchestrated by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and seized on her remarks as wilful deceit.
Their logic was that the Obama administration was trying to downplay any al-Qaeda role in the attacks because it wanted the president to be able to run for re-election trumpeting his role in neutering the terror network.
As Benghazi became a political football in the run-up to the 6 November election, Republicans intensified their attacks on Rice, with some calling for her resignation. Democrats accused their opponents of a smear campaign.
In his first post-election press conference on Wednesday, Obama angrily hit out at Republicans and defended Rice.
"She gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her," the president insisted, training his fire on Republican lawmakers.
"For them to go after the UN ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
The CIA talking points on which Rice based her remarks emerged on Friday and appeared to exonerate the UN envoy, as they mirrored the language she used.
Asked whether she thought Obama or anyone in his administration deliberately misled the public over Benghazi, Feinstein replied, "No, no," and angrily denounced Republican attacks on Rice.
"I have read every one of the five interviews she did that day," Feinstein said. "She was within the context of that statement, and for this, she has been pilloried for two months. I don't understand it. It has to stop."
Kerry touted as possible replacement
Republican Mike Rogers, chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, said Rice's involvement was unclear but still blamed the Obama administration for amending the talking points.
"It went to the so-called deputy's committee, that's populated by appointees from the administration. That's where the narrative changed," Rogers told NBC television's Meet the Press.
Some reports have suggested that names of the militant groups Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were removed from the talking points to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods.
The White House says the only amendment it made was one of accuracy: Changing the word "consulate" to "diplomatic facility".
McCain and Graham both indicated on Sunday they may be relenting on earlier vows to oppose Rice's nomination as secretary of state at all costs.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry has also been touted as a possible replacement when Clinton goes, early in the New Year. Obama is expected to show his hand before his 21 January inauguration.