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The change in the Benghazi talking points

A fire burns at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September.
A fire burns at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September.Getty Images

The partisan hysteria surrounding the September attack in Benghazi has taken a deescalating trajectory -- the scope of the conspiracy theories and unhinged criticism has grown narrower, not broader, over time.

As of yesterday, the overarching question from the right was reduced to this: the talking points made available to U.S. officials four days after the attack were slightly edited, with the word "extremists" replacing the word "terrorists." This, Republicans have argued, is critically important because, well, just because. The "scandal" conservatives are comparing to Watergate has narrowed to a discussion over word choice.

On the Sunday shows, Republicans said identifying who changed one word to another is a question that demands an answer. As it turns out, the answer is now available.

The intelligence community -- not the White House, State Department or Justice Department -- was responsible for the substantive changes made to the talking points distributed for government officials who spoke publicly about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the spokesman for the director of national intelligence said Monday.

The unclassified talking points on Libya, developed several days after the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, were not substantively changed by any agency outside of the intelligence community, according to the spokesman, Shawn Turner.

The talking point initially pointed to al Qaeda involvement, but officials didn't want to divulge too much in non-classified materials, especially in light of classified sourcing, so the word "extremists" was used. Who made the change? The intelligence community. Why did they make the change? For entirely legitimate reasons related to intelligence and national security.

Why is this scandalous? It's not.

"First, the information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources," an official told CNN. "Second, when links were so tenuous -- as they still are -- it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers so you don't set off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions. Third, it is important to be careful not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages."

So, are congressional Republicans prepared to finally move on? Apparently, not yet.

The House Intelligence Committee was not satisfied with Turner's statement.

"The statement released this evening by the DNI's spokesman regarding how the Intelligence Community's talking points were changed gives a new explanation that differs significantly from information provided in testimony to the Committee last week," said committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen. "Chairman Rogers looks forward to discussing this new explanation with Director Clapper as soon as possible to understand how the DNI reached this conclusion and why leaders of the Intelligence Community testified late last week that they were unaware of who changed the talking points."

Kevin Drum's sarcasm rings true.

[Republicans'] dissatisfaction stems, apparently, from the fact that last week witnesses told them they didn't know who changed the words. But this week, after further investigation, they suddenly do know. That simply makes no sense. No sense, I tell you! It's inexplicable that when they ask people questions and then give them time to investigate, those people return with additional information.