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CNN "Erin Burnett Outfront" - Transcript - Benghazi Hearing

Interview

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BURNETT: Political sideshow or an Obama administration cover-up?

OUTFRONT tonight, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California on the House Intelligence Committee.

And thank you very much, Congressman. Always great to talk to you.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: A pleasure to talk to you.

BURNETT: So, when we talk about this -- the talking points did include in their early stage when the CIA handed them for edits, a fairly detailed description with the mention of involvement of al Qaeda, that said that there had been warnings of a possible terror attack in Benghazi. All of these were taken out. It is still unclear at this point by whom, whether in the State Department or in the White House or somewhere else.

How can you defend the administration for such substantial edits to those talking points?

SCHIFF: Well, the key thing on the talking points is most fundamental error in them actually stayed in throughout the editing process, and that was the error that said that this began as a protest. And that error was solely an error of the intelligence agencies. They thought it began as a protest and they got that wrong. There's never been any indication that the State Department or White House was responsible for that error.

There were other changes made basically that watered down the talking points. I think there were a number of motivations there, some to protect classified sources; others, you know, in an effort to fight over turf between State and CIA.

But none of that indicates that there was some crime that's been covered up here. To compare it to Watergate I think is just preposterous.

BURNETT: In one of the e-mail exchanges about the talking points, that the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland talks about some of these edits, and one of them in particular that she refers to in this email was the fact that the repeated warnings about terror attacks in Benghazi were removed. And she justifies that by saying that they should be removed because, quote, "that fact could be accused by members of Congress to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we feed that, either?"

Congressman, obviously, there are people, Democrats, who are saying the Republicans are on a witch hunt because of this. But when you read a sentence like that, that sure as heck sounds like the Democratic administration was playing politics with this last fall.

SCHIFF: I think what was happening here is that, you know, you had two facilities, one that was a State Department diplomatic facility, one that was an agency facility. And so, State Department I think felt why is CIA trying to set it up like they were warning, they were doing everything right when, in fact, the CIA facility was just as vulnerable as the diplomatic one.

And so, that's kind of an early effort to say, let's not jump to conclusion about who is more at fault, or whose facilities were more at risk. Yes, when you take it out of context like that, it certainly doesn't reflect positively on the State Department.

But, you know, putting some gloss on these talking points hardly earth shattering, hardly the stuff of Watergate or major scandal. Part of what happens every day in the interagency process.

BURNETT: Right.

SCHIFF: I do think that, you know, the talking points ultimately got watered down to a point they weren't very useful, but, again, hardly the stuff of great scandal.

BURNETT: But there is one point, though, that people who are frustrated me that I want to ask you about. That is, just talk about the basic thing. Removing al Qaeda from this, which, of course, we now know and we knew fairly soon afterwards that the CIA was aware of that, in the immediate aftermath, and that was in the original talking points as we now know.

This administration and this president was running for re-election on a platform that included repeated references of al Qaeda being on the run and Osama bin Laden being killed. A narrative that all of a sudden you have an attack and an American ambassador dead because of al Qaeda really does go against that, and it does seem that the removal could lead some people to feel that that really was political. It goes against our narrative, so we're going to take it out.

What do you think about that?

SCHIFF: You know, I understand that theory and, you know, I guess you can follow it logically. At the same time, you know, the president talked about this being a terrorist attack. Even, you know, the ambassador talked about extremists attacking the diplomatic facilities.

So there wasn't any hiding the fact that we were attacked. We had our people killed. And those facts and in terms of al Qaeda's potential involvement and Ansar al-Sharia's potential involvement, came out very quickly. So it's hard to claim I think that this was part of a political campaign orchestrated spin.

I will say this, too. You know, the fact that we were attacked in part by al Qaeda on 9/11, I don't know that in the context of the campaign when the country tends to rally around the commander in chief, that the theory really makes much sense that somehow it was better for the administration to make it sound like a spontaneous protest against the U.S. After all, the administration was also saying it made an outreach in the Muslim world and the other side could easily claim that, well, their outreach obviously wasn't working because we were a subject of this, y know, uprising and this attack.

So I'm not sure, although the narrative is coherent one, it really makes a lot of sense here.

BURNETT: All right. Congressman, thank you very much. We appreciate your taking your time, giving his side of the story.

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