WASHINGTON A long-simmering dispute over the White House's account of the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, flared up on Friday, with a disclosure of emails that show the White House was more deeply involved in revising talking points about the attack than officials have acknowledged.
The emails, which the administration turned over to Congress, show the White House coordinating an intensive process with the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and other agencies to obtain the final version of the talking points used by Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, in television appearances after the attack.
The State Department, in particular, pushed to remove references to al-Qaida and Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militant group suspected of carrying out the attack, as well as warnings about other potential terrorist threats from the CIA, which drafted the initial talking points.
Rice was later harshly criticized as having misled the public about the nature of the attack in her television appearances. For Republicans and other critics, the talking points have become a potent symbol of the Obama administration's mishandling of the incident, even if they constitute only a part of the broader issues, from embassy security to intelligence gathering, that were raised by the attack.
The emails initially disclosed in a report last month by House Republicans that was expanded on by the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, and on Friday in further detail by ABC News had the White House scrambling to provide an explanation.
It summoned about a dozen reporters for a briefing by legal and political advisers who, under the ground rules, could not be identified. In that session, the White House asserted that the talking points were not modified for political reasons and noted that they had originally been prepared at the request of Congress. They said frequent revision of talking points was routine at the White House.
Officials stuck to their contention that the only wording change the White House made was to change the description of the Benghazi annex from a consulate to a diplomatic post. The emails do not reveal major new details about the attack or other discrepancies in the administration's evolving account of it.
But when White House press secretary Jay Carney arrived for his on-camera briefing later in the day, he was questioned repeatedly on whether he or the administration deliberately misled reporters last fall about the changes in the talking points.
Carney expressed no regrets and asserted that the CIA rewrote the talking points, although the emails made clear that happened only after other agencies, including the State Department, weighed in.
"I do stand by that," Carney said of his statement that the White House changed only a word or two to make clear the diplomatic post in Benghazi was not referred to as a consulate. "White House involvement in the talking points was very limited and nonsubstantive."
But in at least one briefing last fall, Carney said both the White House and the State Department collectively made just one change, in contradiction to the emails that show more revisions proposed by the State Department.
The disclosures about how extensively the talking points were revised also reveal the divisions that often exist among intelligence agencies, as well as the bureaucratic infighting that often lies behind the bland language in official government statements.
In this case, the State Department bridled at the CIA's initial draft, both because it went further than what the department had been disclosing publicly and because it was apparently worried that CIA warnings about other potential threats would reflect badly on the department.