Q&A With Rep. Devin Nunes: An Obama Appointee Changed Intel Talking Points on Benghazi

By Terence P. Jeffrey | November 21, 2012 | 3:59pm EST

Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.)

(CNSNews.com) - In an interview on Tuesday with CNSNews.com, Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee Intelligence, explained why he believes that the Obama administration’s claim that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi arose from a spontaneous demonstration against a YouTube video “was a lie from the beginning.”

“Someone associated--that serves at the pleasure of the president changed these talking points,” said Nunes.

Here is the full recording and transcript of the interview:

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CNSNews.com Editor in Chief Terence P. Jeffrey: Welcome to this edition of Online with Terry Jeffrey. Our guest today is Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who represents the 21st District of California. He also serves on the House intelligence committee.

Congressman I just want to give you a quote, I know you’re familiar with, from Amb. Susan Rice when she was on "Meet the Press" back on September 16th.

David Gregory asked her: “Can you say definitively that the attacks on our Consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Stevens and others there, security personnel, that was spontaneous. Was it a planned attack? Was there a terrorist element to it?”

Amb. Rice responded as follows:  “Well, let me tell you the best information we have at present. First of all, there’s an FBI investigation which is ongoing, and we looked at that investigation to give us a definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo--almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted of course by the video. What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as that was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and it escalated into a much more violent episode.”

Now congressman, there’s two things about that that have been much noted. One, she did not mention terrorism. But, secondly, she did mention a spontaneous demonstration and a video. What I’d like to ask you is: In the initial talking points that were put out by the Central Intelligence Agency, did the CIA say that there was a spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi before the consulate was attacked?

Rep. Devin Nunes: Well we got to be careful here, there’s lot of rumors floating around. So what the administration points to is a set of unclassified talking points that were provided to the intelligence committees. And, basically, those unclassified talking points didn’t say anything. But they did mention spontaneous protests, or spontaneous eruption out of the protests, or something of that nature.

So, I think that the bottom line here on this is that this storyline is simply not believable by anyone who has any common sense. So, someone associated that serves at the pleasure of the president changed these talking points.

Jeffrey: That’s the point I want to clarify to the degree that you can publicly, congressman. You say that the talking points were provided to the House intelligence committee by the White House?

Nunes: By the DNI [Director of National Intelligence.]

Jeffrey: By the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, alright. Now, prior to that, there was an assessment made by the CIA. Congressman Peter King (R-NY), for example, as you know came out Friday, and said that the original CIA version of the talking points mentioned terrorism in a connection to al Qaeda.

Nunes: Well, what Director Petraeus tried to tell us the other day was that he knew all along that this was a terrorist attack. Well, so, let’s just take anyone who is associated with the president of the United States, who serves at the pleasure of the president, put those folks aside. All of the people beneath that, who are the men and women who protect this country, who either serve in the CIA or any of the other intelligence agencies, all of that intelligence, all of that raw intelligence that we have seen, indicates clearly that they knew shortly after that it was a terrorist attack. So take that.

Then, when that information went upstairs to people who serve at the pleasure of the president, it begins to get murky. And it’s just not believable. So, it wasn’t believable the first time when Director Petraeus and others came and told us, and then made these unclassified talking points that this had something to do with a YouTube video.

The YouTube video was clearly a joke. No foreign government believed that, including the Libyans themselves who came out that weekend, even before Susan Rice went on that weekend, and said that this was a terrorist attack. So no one believes it, no other foreign intelligence service believes it, and people within our own intelligence services didn’t believe that.

Jeffrey: Congressman, let me make sure I understand a certain point here. General Petraeus came and talked to your committee on September 14th, is that correct?

Nunes: Yes.

Jeffrey: And when he came on September 14th, did he tell the committee that he believed that in some way what had happened in Benghazi on September 11th arose out of a spontaneous reaction to the YouTube video?

Nunes: Yes.

Jeffrey: He did tell the committee that?

Nunes: Yes.

Jeffrey: Alright.

Nunes: In unclassified talking points, that’s what he told us.

Jeffrey: In unclassified talking points. Was he reading the talking points to you or was he just speaking out--

Nunes: I don’t remember that but the bottom line is that that wasn’t believable at the time. This stuff is just is not believable.

Jeffrey: And you’re saying that the raw intelligence—the actual reports coming in from the field, the people who were actually looking at the evidence—they never said it was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video? Their initial assessment was that this was—

Nunes: All of the people, all of the intelligence that I’ve seen does not indicate at all that this had anything to do with the YouTube video.

Jeffrey: Ok so on September 14th—

Nunes: I mean, people have to put just a little common sense into this, ok Terry?

Jeffrey: Right.

Nunes: This whole thing with the YouTube video was a lie from the beginning. Remember how this started. Hours before the protest started, the geniuses at the Egyptian embassy—our embassy in Egypt—put out this apology note on Twitter. Remember this?

Jeffrey: Mmhhm.

Nunes: And then—So, likely before that happened, this could have been just a few morons who were out there talking about this, and we do know there was a few people within Egypt that were talking about this, ok? But it was very, very small.

So they probably said: ‘Oh, we’re going to come and protest you.’ So then, stupidly, the State Department puts out this apology note on Twitter, right? And then that did start a spontaneous eruption at the embassy in Cairo--at the embassy in Cairo. And then, after that, eruptions, demonstrations went all over the world, 22 different locations I think was the number. And, then, remember the al Qaeda flag was raised at our Embassy in Cairo.

Jeffrey: Right, in Cairo.

Nunes: The al Qaeda flag.

Jeffrey: Now, at least according to the documents I’ve seen and so forth and the various timelines, it’s about 3:40 p.m. on September 11th, Washington D.C. time, or 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time, that this event begins to unfold at the US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi.

Nunes: There was no protest.

Jeffrey: And there was never any evidence that there was a protest at the US Mission in Benghazi prior to—

Nunes: That’s actually known from press reports at the time, at that exact time. There was a BBC press reporter, if I remember correctly, who was basically at the scene who said that this was an orchestrated attack.

Jeffrey: So we have a BBC eyewitness—not working for any intelligence group but a news agency—who said this was an attack, this was not a demonstration.

Nunes: Right. Well, he didn’t say anything to do with a demonstration because demonstration never came up, there was no demonstration.

Jeffrey: Right.

Nunes: He just said it was just an attack, an orchestrated attack with RPGs and weapons and everything else. So, people on the ground, just regular reporters knew that this was an orchestrated attack.

Jeffrey: And then—

Nunes: Twelve hours from the attack, in the intelligence committee, we were notified that this was a terrorist attack.

Jeffrey: Twelve hours after the attack, congressman?

Nunes: Twelve hours after the attack, the initial reports came out was that this was a terrorist attack. I mean you’d have to know it was a terrorist attack, this is not rocket science.

Anytime you’re getting hit with RPGs, it’s likely an orchestrated attack. People don’t show up spontaneously carrying RPGs and say, ‘Hey, get out of the way here, we’re going to fire 3 shots directly into a wall.’

Jeffrey: You say 12 hours after the attack. The attack started at 3:40pm D.C. time. Literally, you’re talking in the early morning hours, the intelligence community was letting people on the intelligence committees know that this had been a terrorist attack?

Nunes: Yeah, 12 hours after the attack, there was a report that came through that said that this was a terrorist attack.

Jeffrey: And that’s a written report?

Nunes: Yes.

Jeffrey: So people can review that, and look at it, there’s no ambiguity to it?

Nunes: No.

Jeffrey: And that written report mentioned nothing of—

Nunes: I’ve seen no one talk about a spontaneous event that occurred after a demonstration, other than people who serve at the pleasure of the president.

Jeffrey: Ok.

Nunes: But the good news here is that the brave men and women of the CIA and our other services did their job trying to protect this country. So, it amazes me that we have people willing to throw these people under the bus who are out there putting their lives on the line to protect ours.

Jeffrey: Yes, sir. Congressman, so this assessment came in the early morning hours of September 12th. Two days later on September 14th, General Petraeus comes to your committee. The director of the CIA tells your Committee that this arose out of a spontaneous demonstration responding to the YouTube video?

Nunes: Mmhhm.

Jeffrey: And now he’s come back to your committee—

Nunes: Here’s how they’re essentially parsing words. I kind of equate it to when you sit down and you get a home loan and you’ve got 70 pages of stuff to go through and you have to sign your name 25 times. So, imagine spending all the time going through that and people asking questions. And in that timeframe, one or two times, the director mentioned something about terrorism, you know, that it could possibly be terrorism. So, essentially he’s using a technicality to say: Well, I didn’t lie to you guys. I said that this could have been a terrorist attack.

Jeffrey: That’s what he said on Friday?

Nunes: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Did he deny that he had told you also that it was a spontaneous demonstration?

Nunes: No, no, no. He said--They admit now that they got that wrong. On the 14th, we knew that they got it wrong on the 14th. Anybody with any common sense—I’ll go back to this again—there was no foreign country, no press reports, no nothing of anybody that was on the ground there that said this had anything to do with a demonstration, period.

It wasn’t believable on the 14th. Then he comes in on Friday, and we also had testimony on Thursday by the DNI Director. So, their whole storyline is we gave you guys these unclassified talking points. We did mention in the classified setting that it was terrorism. Which, okay, maybe they did, but, you know, when do we not talk about terrorism in a classified setting.

Jeffrey: But DNI [James] Clapper was responsible for those unclassified talking points that Petraeus was referring to on September 14th?

Nunes: Ultimately, he is.

Jeffrey: Alright congressman, in the early morning hours of the 12th, the initial intelligence assessment you get says this is a terrorist attack, says nothing about a demonstration. 48 hours later, Gen. Petraeus is in your committee, talking about a spontaneous demonstration and the YouTube video. How did those talking points get developed between the first assessment that says no spontaneous demonstration and Petraeus telling you two days later there was one? How did that get developed?

Nunes: Well, therein lies the question that we’re trying to get to the bottom of. So, it’s been kind of out there that somehow this went to the deputies committee on the National Security Council. That’s one story. Could it have been changed by the Principal’s Committee? We don’t know. Could it have come from someone higher up in the White House? We just don’t know that. That’s one of the things we have to get to the bottom of.

Jeffrey: What is the Deputy’s Committee, exactly?

Nunes: The Deputy’s Committee is made up so that you have like the senior level and then the deputies on the National Security Council, so the deputies meet. For example, the CIA Director, he’s the senior. His deputy meets with the deputy level.

Jeffrey: And the deputy attorney general, the deputy secretary of state, and so forth?

Nunes: Yeah, there’s, I don’t know, 10 or 12 I believe.

Jeffrey: Now congressman, from public reporting we know that the State Department did not say there was a spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi. They in fact sent an email to the White House about an hour and a half after the attack started saying that Ansar al Sharia had taken credit for the attack on its Facebook.

The CIA did not say it was a spontaneous response to the YouTube video. Do we have any idea of the genesis of the claim that there was a spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi?

Nunes: No.

Jeffrey: We don’t know that. Now, this obviously is a target of the investigation of your committee to find out where in fact the genesis is?

Nunes: That’s correct.

Jeffrey: Congressman, two days after the president was inaugurated in 2009, he did a very high profile signing of an executive order dealing with CIA detentions and renditions and said that they were going to close Guantanamo Bay prison within a year.

And on January 23rd, 2009—the day after the president did this-- the New York Times in describing what he did ran a story.

The headline on it was “Obama Orders Secret Prisons and Detention Camps Closed.” And the story said in it—this is the New York Times reporting—they said: “A government official said Mr. Obama’s order on the CIA would still allow its officers abroad to temporarily detain terrorism suspects and transfer them to other agencies, but would no longer allow the Agency to carry out long term detentions.”

Is it your understanding that the executive order and the policy of President Obama is that the CIA can still “temporarily” detain terrorism suspects overseas?

Nunes: Well, look, I believe that this is a complex matter here. But simply put, we need to be able to detain these suspects, ok? So, I don’t exactly what the president thinks is right or not right, but I do know this: He’s made it his position to the public that we don’t ever detain anyone any longer. And I think I know what you’re getting at. You’re getting to this question of were there detainees in Benghazi somewhere under American control. But we’re being told ‘no,’ but that’s another thing that we have to get to the bottom of.

Jeffrey: The administration is saying the CIA had no detainees there?

Nunes: That’s what we’re being told.

Jeffrey: There’s also the practice of rendition, where we would turn over a detainee to a third party. Is there any indication that there were any renditions that took place in Libya?

Nunes: Look, everything we’re being told, there was nothing that even resembled a prisoner at all.

Jeffrey: There’s an interesting point, it seems you were suggesting there a moment ago congressman: The President has at least projected the public perception that under his administration, the CIA does not detain people.

Yet the New York Times, in its reporting about the president’s executive order on that policy, just flatly said they retain the ability to temporarily detain people. Is there a little bit of a conflict there, do you think?

Nunes: Oh, there is. It goes back to the whole problem with Guantanamo. This is a president who ran on Guantanamo: ‘We apologize.’ He did a world tour apologizing for the treatment of these terrorists in Guantanamo.

And look, Guantanamo is something that we need. It’s in our national security interest. And, in fact, people in New York City, when they found out that the terrorists were going to be tried there, even the liberals in New York City went crazy and you had liberals like Chuck Schumer say no way are we going to try these people here.

So, Guantanamo is important to our national intelligence. It’s important to our national security. But this is a president whose rhetoric oftentimes has not matched his deeds. But this is all part of the unraveling of Obama’s national security posture in the globe.

It all goes back to Guantanamo. It goes back to apologizing for America. It goes back to the use of drones, which is probably not a good way to gather intelligence. And I can go on and on here, but the bottom line here is we have a kind of a discombobulation going on throughout our national security apparatus.

Jeffrey: So your committee is going to investigate whether there was a contradiction between the president’s stated policy that the CIA would not detain people, and the possibility that perhaps there were people detained in Libya at some point?

Nunes: Well our committee is going to investigate everything around the whole situation in Benghazi. So, we’re willing to take any evidence that people may have that is counter to what they’re hearing in the press or hearing from the White House. We’d be very interested in having information that people may have on this.

Jeffrey: Congressman, one more issue I want to ask you about. I went back and looked at the responses that General Petraeus gave to the Senate intelligence committee when they were confirming him in June of 2011.

This is one of the questions they asked: “What is your understanding of the respective roles of the executive office of the president and the CIA in the formulation and implementation of covert action programs?”

And this was the written response that General Petraeus gave to the Senate committee, he said: “The CIA carries out covert action on behalf of the president. It is the president, his national security staff, or other members of the Executive Branch that propose ideas for covert action programs that will support the national security objectives of the United States. CIA then develops a plan for carrying out the program, including the preparation of a draft, presidential finding, or memorandum of notification [MON] and supporting paperwork. The CIA then submits that plan to the national security staff after coordination with the ODNI and the intelligence community as appropriate.”

“The proposed finding or MON is reviewed by the national security staff, and then sent to the president for approval. Once approved, and after required notification to the two intelligence committees, the president typically will direct the CIA to implement the program. Once implemented, the agency itself, as well as the NSC and the intelligence committees of Congress review the conduct of the program, on an ongoing basis.”

In light of that, is it in fact the case that if the CIA had been carrying out any covert activity in Libya, it would’ve been something that had to be directly ordered and approved by President Obama?

Nunes: Yes, absolutely.

Jeffrey: And there would be a paper trail demonstrating that covert activity, and the decision of the president?

Nunes: That is if they were following the letter of the law. That is correct.

Jeffrey: As General Petraeus described to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the administration would be required to tell your Committee and keep your Committee informed on an ongoing basis of any covert activity that it had approved, for example in Libya?

Nunes: That’s correct.

Jeffrey: Are you confident that President Obama and his administration kept the House intelligence committee apprised in a full and timely way of any covert activity that might’ve been taking place in Libya?

Nunes: I would hope so. You know, I would hope so. But we don’t--Can I say that for sure? No, because of the situation. When you have people willing to go out and make up stories on YouTube videos and unclassified talking points and throw the intelligence community under the bus, look, that’s three strikes in my book.

So at this point, anybody that serves at the pleasure of the president, I cannot believe or trust at this point.

Jeffrey: Congressman, this is my last question. You say you hope so. We now know that the CIA operated this annex in Benghazi not far from the consulate and some of the people that went to the aid—including Tyrone Woods, a former US Navy SEAL—who went to the aid of the State Department personnel, were in fact working for the CIA.

Are you confident that the administration had fully briefed your committee, and that the congressional intelligence committees understood what that annex facility was doing in Libya?

Nunes: Well, I am confident that we have been told their version of the event. What it’s up to us to do now, is to now verify that their version is correct and accurate. And that’s what we’re attempting to do now. So if there are any discrepancies, then we have to follow through on those and follow up and try to get to the bottom of it.

Jeffrey: Congressman Devin Nunes thank you very much.

Nunes: Thank you.

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