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Clinton remains GOP focus as administration defends Benghazi talking points

Emails show the State Department and the White House were much more involved in watering down Benghazi talking points than previously acknowledged. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Continuing questions over the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi are prompting a fresh round of scrutiny aimed at the State Department and its former head Hillary Clinton, with critics questioning Clinton’s leadership and involvement in the administration’s public response to the violence that left four Americans dead.

On Friday, NBC News confirmed that the White House, with input from State Department officials, had edited talking points about the Benghazi attacks 12 times in the hours following the incident. Those edits included a scrubbing of references to terrorist warnings as well as to the al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia.

The changes were suggested in part by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland; administration officials with knowledge of her role told NBC News that Nuland raised “legitimate procedural concerns” intended to prevent prejudging of a fluid intelligence situation.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Friday sought to clarify the administration’s response to the talking points, and decried efforts to “make something political out of this.” He added, “But the problem with that effort is that it’s never been clear what it is they think they’re accusing the administration of doing, because when it comes to who was responsible, we were very open about what we knew, what we thought we knew , what we did for a fact know, and the fact that it was an ongoing investigation.”

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Andrea Mitchell in a Google Hangout about the Benghazi hearings, and the fact that despite the testimonies from several new officials, none of the information presented is really "new" to him.

Congressional sources tell NBC News that over about two hours on March 18, 96 emails regarding the interagency response to the attacks were available for review to congressional investigators. The highest ranking official on the email chain was then-CIA Director David Petraeus, who sent one email that was reviewed at the end of the talking points process. Nuland and White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes also specifically weighed-in on requested changes.

After the first edition of talking points referred to an al Qaeda-linked group, Nuland wrote "Why would we want the Hill fingering al Ansar al Sharia when we aren't doing that ourselves until we have an investigation result?"

Nuland also expressed concern that references to previous terror threats “could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned."

The administration officials with knowledge of Nuland’s role told NBC News that she was concerned because the original talking points could potentially “prejudice the investigation,” and possibly encouraged “a blame game before the investigation was complete.”

“She did not make changes to the points,” the officials added. “Rather, she asked for higher level interagency review, which the White House agreed was necessary. She played no further role in the handling of these points."

The new reports are sure to spark additional calls from Republicans for further investigation, with a focus on the role of Clinton – Nuland’s boss – in managing the fallout from attacks.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul, whose 2016 ambitions are in the spotlight during a high-profile trip to Iowa on Friday, took a direct swing at Clinton – a possible Democratic White House rival – suggesting bluntly in an op-ed that her response to the attacks should disqualify her from a presidential run.  

“The evidence we had in January already suggested that Mrs. Clinton ignored repeated requests for more security in Benghazi,” he wrote in the Washington Times on Friday morning. “The new evidence we have today — and that continues to mount — suggests that at the very least, Mrs. Clinton should never hold high office again.”

Clinton said at a Jan. 23 House hearing that she did not participate in the drafting of the talking points.

NBC News Senior Political Editor Mark Murray looks back on the political week that was, including attention on the Obama Administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks, the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" immigration plan, and Mark Sanford's win in South Carolina.

“I wasn't involved in the talking points process,” she said. “As I understand it, as I've been told, it was a typical interagency process where staff, including from the State Department all participated, to try to come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available, and it was an intelligence product"

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican questioning the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks, said this week Clinton should return to Capitol Hill to testify, perhaps under subpoena, about the new revelations.

Conservative group CrossroadsGPS publicized a web video Friday highlighting testimony from self-described “whistleblowers” at a congressional hearing earlier this week and asking if Clinton was “part of a coverup.’

Democrats continue to dismiss the complaints as politically motivated.

Former White House senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted Friday that the furor over Benghazi is motivated by those hoping to undercut her presidential chances.

Can't help but feeling that If (former secretary of the interior) Ken Salazar were the front runner for '16, the House GOP be holding hearings on the BP oil spill,” he wrote.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell contributed to this report

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