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What are “the talking points?”

Susan Rice, then an ambassador to the UN, denied Republican claims that she misled Americans over the attack on the US mission in Benghazi.

Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice (R) speaks after US President Barack Obama (L) appointed her during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, June 5, 2013.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

On the Sunday after the attacks, then-US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice went on the talk shows to explain the White House’s position on the attack. Rice’s comments were based on official administration talking points that blamed it on an Innocence of Muslims protest gone wrong, a position we know now to be not quite right. Some conservatives argued emails released on April 30, 2014 proved an Administration cover-up, but in context the evidence is somewhat less than conclusive.

Republicans have long alleged that the White House had improperly tampered with the talking points they jointly formulated with the CIA, obscuring the truth or outright lying to downplay the Administration’s culpability for the attack. The talking points brouhaha made Rice so controversial that she was forced to withdraw her name from consideration to be Secretary of State after Hillary Clinton retired (Rice became National Security Adviser instead).

It turns out, though, that former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell — and not any White House official — had removed references to al-Qaeda from an early draft of the talking points. According to Morrell, this was because 1) the CIA had evidence that the attack grew out of Innocence and 2) the intel that pointed to al-Qaeda came from classified sources that the CIA didn’t want to identify publicly.

We know about this because every draft of the infamous talking points is now public — you can read them here, along with who made what change (search for “analysis of the talking points” in the PDF to get to them quickly).

The emails obtained on April 30 include one from Ben Rhodes, a top White House communications officer on foreign policy. The most controversial part of Rhodes’ email (p. 14-15 here) is his listing “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” The allegation is that this is a “smoking gun” of improper White House interference in the drafting of the talking points. However, the email is not an edit of the official CIA talking points. It doesn’t overrule the CIA at any point and, as Dave Weigel shows in detail, is consistent with the previous information suggesting the White House was basing its views on CIA provided information.