One hundred pages of emails were passed out by the White House Wednesday as the Obama administration tried to put an end to the long simmering dispute over what took place when the American compound in Benghazi was attacked. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
Under increasing scrutiny from congressional Republicans, the White House on Wednesday released copies of emails and other additional supporting documents related to its response to last fall’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
The White House released the materials in the wake of Republicans’ clamor for more information about how the Obama administration crafted its explanation for the incident, which came at the height of last year’s campaign season, and resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The emails convey different parts of the administration -- the White House, the State Department, and the CIA -- trading drafts of talking points for use not just by representatives of the administration, but also by members of Congress.
From the very first draft, the talking points included references to "Islamic extremists" who might have participated in the attack.
The most significant changes involved removing references to Ansar al-Sharia to not hinder the investigation into the attack, and changing reference to the Benghazi location to a "mission" or "diplomatic post," rather than a consulate.
Those talking points, though, were subjected to scrutiny and a series of tweaks from different agencies to ensure the talking points did not get out in front of investigators, who did not yet appear to have a full grasp of the underpinnings of the attack at that point.
The documents released by the White House indicated that then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell voiced similar concerns to those from State Department officials and that the same intelligence analysts who drafted the original talking points were comfortable with the language included in the edits, NBC's Peter Alexander reported.
On page 95 of the documents released Wednesday, an email appears to show that then-CIA Director David Petraeus wasn't completely sold on releasing the talking points, writing: "No mention of the cable to Cairo, either? Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this, then ... NSS's call, to be sure; however, this is certainly not what Vice Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas use. Regardless, thx for the great work."
A congressional hearing last week, where whistleblowers took issue with the administration’s initial explanation that the attacks were the spontaneous outgrowth of an unrelated protest (and not a terrorist attack) gave rise to new demands for more information from the administration.
Republicans took the emails as a validation of their criticism of the White House for making more changes to its talking points than the administration had originally let on.
“The seemingly political nature of the State Department’s concerns raises questions about the motivations behind these changes and who at the State Department was seeking them. This release is long overdue and there are relevant documents the Administration has still refused to produce,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “We hope, however, that this limited release of documents is a sign of more cooperation to come.”
President Barack Obama has dismissed Republicans’ interest in the administration’s evolving explanation for the attack as a “sideshow,” as recently as this Monday.
“The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” he said. “What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were.”
Underlying Republicans’ interest in the Benghazi matter – at which they’ve kept now for six months – is a suspicion that the administration clouded the reality of the attack so as to not damage Obama’s prospects for re-election.
“The president ran out the clock and he won the election,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C., a chief Republican critic of Obama’s on Benghazi, said Tuesday on Fox News. “He was able to get Benghazi behind him in terms of electoral politics, but it won't go away.”
Meanwhile, U.S. government officials said investigators have identified a person who played a central role in the attack in Benghazi, and that federal criminal charges against that person will soon be made public. The person to be named in the charges is not yet in U.S. custody, one official said.
Word of that progress in the investigation followed a statement by Attorney General Eric Holder, who told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the Justice Department has taken "definitive, concrete action" to bring people to justice who were responsible for the attack.
"We have been aggressive and we are in a good position. Definitive action has been taken," Holder said, though he declined to be more specific.
"We will be prepared shortly to reveal what we have done," he said.
NBC News' Pete Williams and Jonathan Dienst contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Wed May 15, 2013 5:01 PM EDT