A Wall Street Journal article highlighted Republican complaints that references to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations were removed from unclassified talking points on the Benghazi, Libya, attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility but failed to note that those references were removed to avoid compromising a criminal investigation and tipping off those terrorist organizations.
In a May 14 article about the Obama administration's release of more than 100 pages of emails showing the editing process behind unclassified talking points about the Benghazi attacks, the Journal channeled Republican critiques that references to Al Qaeda were removed to intentionally mislead the American public about what occurred in Benghazi:
The talking points were meant to provide a first public account of the attacks on U.S. posts in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The very first set of talking points said "extremists with ties to al Qaeda" took part in the attacks. The final product made no reference to al Qaeda, but to extremists.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice used the talking points as the basis of the administration's explanation of what happened in the assault in a series of television interviews Sept. 16, 2012, five days after the attacks.
Republicans have said the talking points show the administration misled the public about the role of al Qaeda. Democrats charge the GOP with trying to damage the standing of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential prospect.
But the removal of references to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations weren't designed to mislead anybody but terrorists. The New York Times reported in November that former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers in congressional testimony that the names of terrorist organizations suspected of participating in the attacks "were removed from the public explanation of the attack immediately after the assault to avoiding alerting the militants that American intelligence and law enforcement agencies were tracking them."
Additionally, the release of the talking points emails shows that the CIA's general counsel was concerned about naming specific groups because it could "conflict with express instructions from NSS/DOJ/FBI that, in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this." The emails also show State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressing concern that naming the terrorist groups possibly involved might "prejudice the investigation."
In contrast to the Journal's report, The Washington Post included explanations about why references to specific terrorist organizations were removed from the talking points:
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 to describe the internal debate.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that the only indication the CIA had at that point that Ansar al-Sharia was involved was a single piece of intelligence, whose existence it did not want to reveal lest its sources and methods be compromised.