WASHINGTON - Political considerations influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used five days after the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department e-mails.
The latest disclosures Friday raised new questions about whether the Obama administration tried to play down any terrorist factor in the attack on a diplomatic compound just weeks before the November presidential election. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed when insurgents struck the U.S. mission in two nighttime attacks.
The White House has insisted that it made only a "stylistic" change to the intelligence agency talking points from which Rice suggested on five Sunday talk shows that demonstrations over an anti-Islamic video devolved into the Benghazi attack.
Numerous agencies had engaged in an e-mail discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Rice for their public comments. In one e-mail, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland worried about the effect of openly discussing earlier warnings about the dangers of Islamic extremists in Benghazi.
Nuland's e-mail said such revelations "could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to [Central Intelligence] agency warnings," according to a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of e-mails.
The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the e-mails that still have not been released.
A scathing independent report in December found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department meant that security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."
Eight months after the attack, the long-running and bitter dispute between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on the subject shows no sign of abating.
"There's an ongoing effort to make something political out of this," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday of the disclosure of the e-mails, which the administration had provided to lawmakers. "The problem with that effort is that it's never been clear what it is they think they're accusing the administration of doing."
Republicans have complained that the administration was trying to conceal that the attack was the work of terrorists and not a protest over an anti-Islamic film that got out of hand. Such revelations just before the election perhaps could have undercut President Obama's record on fighting terrorism.
The State Department e-mails and other internal administration deliberations were summarized last month in an interim investigative report by Republicans on five House committees.
New details about political concerns and the names of the administration officials who wrote the e-mails concerning the talking points emerged on Friday.
Following Capitol Hill briefings in the days after the attack, members of Congress asked the CIA for talking points to explain the assault, and the CIA under the direction of David H. Petraeus put together an assessment.
It said that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda took part in the attack, cited reports linking the attack to the group Ansar al-Sharia, mentioned the experience of Libyan fighters, and referred to previous warnings of threats in Benghazi.
The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was deleted, but Nuland wrote later that night that changes she had seen "don't resolve all my issues and those of my building leadership, they are consulting with NSS," a reference to the National Security staff within the White House.