WASHINGTON - The White House released 100 pages of e-mails Wednesday that reveal differences between intelligence analysts and State Department officials over how to initially describe the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The internal debate did not include political interference from the White House, according to the e-mails, which were also provided to congressional intelligence committees several months ago.
Since the assault that killed four Americans, Republicans have accused President Obama and his senior advisers of mischaracterizing the attack during a close reelection campaign.
According to the e-mails and initial CIA-drafted talking points, the agency believed the attack included a mix of Islamist extremists from Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and angry demonstrators.
White House officials did not challenge that analysis, the e-mails show, nor did they object to its inclusion in the public talking points.
But CIA deputy director Michael Morell later removed the reference to Ansar al-Sharia because the assessment was still classified and because FBI officials believed that making the information public could compromise their investigation, said senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The e-mails - some several pages long, with replies to previous lengthy exchanges - reveal that the main source of the debate between the CIA and the State Department was whether previous CIA warnings of attacks in the Benghazi area should be included in the public statements.
Senior administration officials said Wednesday that Morell, who took the lead in editing the talking points drafted initially by the Office of Legislative Affairs, agreed with State Department resistance to including the agency's warnings about possible violence.
Senior administration officials said Morell removed the references after hearing about the State Department concerns - though his concerns don't appear in any of the e-mails.
Victoria Nuland, then the State Department spokeswoman, wrote on the evening of Sept. 14 that the warnings "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat the State Department . . . so why do we want to feed that either?"
She also raised concern about naming the terrorist organization that CIA officials believed was involved in the attack. "Why do we want [the] Hill to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren't doing that ourselves until we have investigation results," she wrote.
David H. Petraeus, Morell's boss at the time, was not included in the exchanges, which were among lower-ranking officials. Once he received the final version Sept. 15, Petraeus complained that they did not include the warnings, which would have made the CIA look as if it had anticipated an attack.
"Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this," Petraeus wrote of the final talking points.