* ABC report says emails edited to remove al Qaeda threat
* White House defends handling of talking points
* Democrats say Republican accusations politically motivated
(Adds background, paragraphs 6-7)
By Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, May 10 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's
administration fought back on Friday against Republican
accusations that it covered up details of last year's deadly
assault on a U.S. mission in Libya, after a news report that
memos on the incident were edited to omit a CIA warning of a
threat posed by al Qaeda.
The report by ABC News gave new momentum to the highly
partisan flap over whether the administration tried to avoid
casting the Sept. 11, 2012, attack as terrorism at a time when
the presidential election was less than two months away.
ABC released 12 versions of the administration's "talking
points" on Benghazi that appeared to show how various agencies -
particularly the State Department and the CIA - shaped what
became the Obama's administration's initial playbook for
explaining how four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador
Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack.
The report came two days after a hearing by a House of
Representatives committee in which Gregory Hicks, a former U.S.
diplomat in Libya, gave a dramatic account of the night of the
attack and what he described as a poorly handled response to it.
The hearing was the latest in a series of efforts by
Republicans to raise questions about the administration's
response to the attack by suspected Islamist militants, with an
increasing focus on the role of then-Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.
The White House has cast Republican questions as an attempt
to manufacture a scandal. But the reaction to Friday's report by
those in both parties suggested that Benghazi was not fading as
Obama's administration appeared to acknowledge that on
Friday. White House spokesman Jay Carney held a hastily
scheduled background briefing for reporters, as officials tried
to defuse any political fallout from the talking-point memos.
TENSION BETWEEN AGENCIES
The memos were used to prepare Susan Rice, the U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations, before she appeared on
television talk shows a few days after the attack.
The ABC report on the emails among the White House, State
Department and intelligence agencies about the attack showed the
final talking points went through a series of revisions that
scrubbed them of references to previous terror warnings.
In one email exchange, the State Department's spokeswoman at
the time, Victoria Nuland, objected to including the CIA's
reference to intelligence about the threat from al Qaeda in
Benghazi and eastern Libya.
That "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up
the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so
why would we want to feed that either? Concerned," Nuland wrote
in the email.
A source familiar with the Benghazi memos said Nuland was
concerned that the talking points went further than what she was
allowed to say during her briefings and that "the CIA was
attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department's
But the source said the deletion of references to al Qaeda
and the CIA's warnings came after a White House meeting on the
day before Rice appeared on five Sunday morning TV talk shows,
and that Nuland was not at the meeting.
White House spokesman Carney said on Friday the changes were
part of a broad effort to ensure that Rice was talking about
facts and not speculation. The final talking points were
approved by a CIA official the day before Rice's appearances on
the talk shows, he said.
"The overriding concern of everyone involved in that
circumstance is always to make sure that we are not giving to
those who speak in public about these issues information that
cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible,"
He said the White House made stylistic changes to the
talking points to clarify that the Benghazi mission was not a
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said critics
were "cherry-picking" details from the memos but that "what was
clear throughout was that extremists were involved in the
A national security official with direct knowledge of the
talking-point process said the State Department had objected to
a draft produced by the CIA because it made it seem as if State
had ignored previous intelligence warnings about the dangers in
'PURE, PROLONGED POLITICAL PROCESS'
Democrats have dismissed the Republican attacks as
politically motivated, and they had not gained much public
momentum until this week.
"It's a tragedy, but I hate to see it turned into a pure,
prolonged, political process that really doesn't tell us
anything new about the facts," Secretary of State John Kerry,
who replaced Clinton, said in a Google+ Hangout chat.
During the House hearing on Wednesday, Republicans renewed
their months-old claims that the email traffic showed that the
administration tried to play down the Benghazi assault because
it came at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign and
might have made Obama look weak on national security.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner demanded on Thursday
that the administration release emails on its handling of the
attack. The emails reported by ABC had been shown to members of
Congress, but lawmakers and staff were not given copies,
Republican advocacy groups also entered the fray.
The pro-Republican group American Crossroads released a web
video that raised questions about Clinton's role in a possible
"cover-up" over the White House's evolving explanations for the
In the days after the attack, the administration - citing
intelligence reports - essentially said it had been a
demonstration that turned violent. The story soon changed to an
acknowledgement that Islamist militants were behind the assault.
"Americans deserve the truth," the American Crossroads
The Republican National Committee sent out portions of the
ABC report in an email headlined "Obama's Bungled Benghazi
Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat on the
House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform
Committee, said the Republican accusations were an attempt to
damage Clinton in case she decides to run for president in 2016.
"It is so much an effort ... to harm her before she even
makes a decision and then to make sure they've got some material
after she decides to run for president, assuming she does," he
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Mark Felsenthal;
Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by David Lindsey and
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