Emails reveal a flurry of changes to Benghazi talking points

Updated 8:45 p.m. ET

As House Republicans piece together the events in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, that led to the death of four Americans, the focus has fallen on the talking points the Obama administration used to describe the attack in the days following.

The talking points were revised numerous times before United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice used them on political talk shows on Sept. 16. While the White House says the changes were merely stylistic, the changes suggest administration officials were interested in sparing the State Department from political criticism in the wake of the attack.

CBS News has learned there was a flurry of approximately 100 interagency government emails on Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 regarding the content of the talking points to be released to members of Congress regarding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi. The email list included officials from the White House, State Department, CIA, FBI and others reviewing the talking points.

An early set of talking points was ready for interagency review at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14.:

11:15 a.m. talking points: "....we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa'ida participated in the attack."

4:42 p.m. talking points: Changed "attacks in Benghazi" to "demonstrations in Benghazi."

Added: "On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy [in Cairo] and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy." This news that a warning had been given was later removed.

Added: "The Agency [CIA] has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa'ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador's convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks." This news of advance warning of a threat was later removed.

Removed reference to "ties to al Qa'ida" and again changed "attack" to "violent demonstrations."

E-mails were provided by the Administration to certain Congressional committees for limited review. The committees were not permitted to copy the e-mails, so they made handwritten notes. Therefore, part of the quoted e-mails may be paraphrased.*

In a 6:52 p.m. email: John Brennan, then-Deputy National Security Advisor (now head of CIA) asked for removal of "the crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libya society."

7:39 p.m. email: State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed the most sweeping concerns. "I have serious concerns about all parts highlighted below in arming members of Congress with information to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the investigation... Why do we want the Hill to be fingering [al-Qaeda linked] Ansar al-Sharia when we aren't doing that ourselves until we have investigation results? And the penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency [CIA] about al-Qaeda's presence and activities of al-Qaeda...[which] could be abused by members of Congress to fault the State Department for not paying attention... so why would we want to cede that, either?"

8:59 p.m. email: A facilitator of the email threads answers Nuland's concerns about "prejudicing the investigation" by stating "The FBI did not have major concerns with the points and offered only a couple of minor suggestions." Nonetheless, they remove a paragraph referring to Ansar al-Sharia from the next version.

8:59 p.m. talking points: Changed "we do know" to "there are indications that" Islamic extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."

Removed "Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia. The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved. Ansar al-Sharia's Facebook page aims to spread Sharia in Libya and emphasizes the need for jihad to counter what it views as false interpretations of Islam, according to an open source study.

9:24 p.m. email: Nuland responds: "These don't resolve all of my issues or those of my building leadership. They are consulting with NSS [National Security Staff.]"

9:25 p.m. email: Jake Sullivan, then-Secretary of State Clinton's Deputy Chief of Staff (now National Security Advisor for Vice President Biden) tells the group "I spoke with Tommy (Vietor-then-spokesman for the White House National Security Council)... we'll work this through in the morning."

9:32 p.m. email: Sullivan to Nuland: "Talked to Tommy (Vietor). We can make edits."

9:34 p.m. email: Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama regarding a federal agency Deputies meeting that's been called the next morning to discuss the talking points: "...we don't want to undermine the investigation...we want to address every department's equities including the State Department, so we'll deal with this at the Deputies meeting."

The CIA's legislative affairs representatives loops in then-CIA chief David Petraeus, notifying him of "major coordination problems... State has major concerns... the Bureau [FBI] cleared the points but [Ben] Rhodes said they will be reviewed in the Deputies meeting."

*Editor's note: This paragraph was included in the original story submission but was omitted from a previous version due to an inadvertent error in the editing process.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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