CIA director David Petraeus was surprised when he read the freshly rewritten talking points an aide had emailed him in the early afternoon of Saturday, September 15. One day earlier, analysts with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis had drafted a set of unclassified talking points policymakers could use to discuss the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. But this new version—produced with input from senior Obama administration policymakers—was a shadow of the original.
The original CIA talking points had been blunt: The assault on U.S. facilities in Benghazi was a terrorist attack conducted by a large group of Islamic extremists, including some with ties to al Qaeda.
These were strong claims. The CIA usually qualifies its assessments, providing policymakers a sense of whether the conclusions of its analysis are offered with “high confidence,” “moderate confidence,” or “low confidence.” That first draft signaled confidence, even certainty: “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.”