The semi-dormant controversy over the Obama administration's conduct during and after the attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi re-erupted last week when ABC News' Jonathan Karl published a report that lent credence to GOP suspicions that the White House was deeply involved in preparing official talking points about the attack to tamp down the story for political reasons.
The ABC report was based on notes taken by a still-unnamed source, presumably a Republican, in attendance at one of two briefings the administration held for members and senior staffers of the Senate and House intelligence committees and top leadership offices in February and March of this year. The ABC report contained a great deal of the information the White House would ultimately reveal itself this week when it released all of the inter- and intra-agency email communication that ultimately resulted in the talking points Susan Rice used in a now-infamous series of appearances on network news shows on the Sunday after the attack.
But it got one big part about the White House's role wrong:
In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. -- three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows -- Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department's concerns needed to be addressed. "We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don't want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting."
It turns out that's not what the email said. To quiet the growing furor over the idea that the White House had thumbed the scale on the State Department's behalf, a government official subsequently leaked to CNN the full text of Rhodes' message, which was assiduously neutral about each relevant agency's concerns.
But discussions with several people in attendance at or with knowledge of the two congressional briefings suggest that members and staffers were left with the opposite impression -- that the White House had remained neutral in the dispute between the State Department and the CIA -- and that after a thorough run-through, they were given ample time to take notes not just about the briefing itself, but in theory to transcribe key emails verbatim.
"When I say they were allowed to have the documents for as long as they wanted, they were allowed to take notes for as long as they wanted as well," the intelligence official said.
The discrepancy between the documents ABC was provided and the official records has led White House officials, congressional aides, and outside observers to the conclusion that a GOP member or staffer falsified notes or tendentiously interpreted administration emails -- and then leaked them -- to create the impression that the White House had sided with the State Department in an intra-agency dispute to protect President Obama from political blowback.
"I got a lot of questions probing in a lot areas," the intelligence official said. "Truthfully I cannot recall whether I specifically got any questions asking about the White House. All the questions I got were not sort of tendentious questions but they were asking facts, to understand what went on."
After those briefings, the Benghazi controversy quieted down for several weeks -- a tellingly long silence given how damning the emails supposedly were -- until ABC's report, including its characterization of the White House's involvement, exploded in the press late last week. Karl, who downplayed the discrepancies between the summaries he relied on and the actual emails, was not immediately available for comment for this story.
"I wouldn't go into what the members said in the meeting," the intelligence official said. "The relationship between what the documents show and what the report said sort of speak for itself."
A congressional source who attended one of the two meetings had a similar recollection.
"I don't recall a single member asking a single question or making a single statement suggesting the White House played anything other than an appropriate role in resolving the disagreement over the talking points," the source said.
On top of that, the source added that the CIA had acknowledged on other occasions making all of the major changes to the talking points itself, irrespective of the State Department's concerns.
"The CIA itself and then the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] who walked us through the emails all made clear that every one of the changes with regard to the involvement the naming of al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia were made by the CIA," the source added. "Petraeus and Morell were saying that last year.... They were extremely forthcoming about that from the beginning. That piece of knowledge was repeated so many times in so many different briefings it would be impossible for me to believe that anybody left with the impression that anyone other than the CIA made the changes."
This source draws a connection between the notes quoted in the ABC report, and an April report from House Republicans which attributes the changes to the State Department.
"The House Republican report so distorted its coverage of the talking points changes. ... I see no reason to believe it wouldn't be the same thing with regard to the Ben Rhodes email."
A senior House Republican aide with knowledge of the briefing but who denies being ABC's source still largely backs the GOP characterization of the emails, and says any mischaracterizations were unintentional, and the result of poor communication.
"The idea anyone was nefariously putting words in people's mouths just isn't based in reality," the aide emailed. "This ALL goes back to a disconnect between quoting summaries vs quoting verbatims. And, again, ABC acknowledges they weren't clear enough in their first story about what they were told they had been given."
That explanation doesn't cut it for Democrats.
"I think they thought that this stuff would never be declassified or something," said one House source with knowledge of the briefing. "Some of them could've taken really bad notes, but to me this looks more intentional."
To the congressional source in attendance, it's all part of the GOP obsession with Benghazi. "I know for a fact that some of the Republican critics -- they are true believers. .... They may not have found the smoking gun yet that convinces everyone else there was a coverup, but there's no question in their mind that it's there somewhere, evidence notwithstanding."