WASHINGTON -- Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers Friday that the agency had secretly assessed that al Qaida-linked gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, but that classified references to the terrorist group were cut from talking points on which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice relied for television interviews.
Petraeus testified in closed hearings of the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees a week after his startling admission to adultery and his resignation from the CIA roiled official Washington, igniting a scandal that grew to ensnare the Marine general who commands U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking after the back-to-back sessions, lawmakers said that Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general who once commanded the U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, apologized for his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But the issue didn’t figure at all in his testimony or their questions, they said.
“The general did not address any specifics of the affair, of that issue. What he did say in his opening statement was that he regrets the circumstances that led to his resignation,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.
Petraeus was kept hidden from the news media as he was escorted in and out of the hearings, which the committees held as they conduct two of four congressional investigations into the Benghazi attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, another State Department staffer and two CIA contract security officers.
Republican lawmakers have led a political outcry over the tragedy. They’ve targeted Rice with charges that in five TV shows five days after the assaults, she cast the attacks as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation, in a deliberate bid to protect President Barack Obama’s record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign.
Several senior Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said earlier this week that they’d oppose Rice if Obama nominates her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to stay on for the second term.
Petraeus, lawmakers said, told the committees that from the beginning the CIA had assessed that members of al Qaida affiliates were involved in the assaults.
But the references to al Qaida were struck from the final version of unclassified talking points that the intelligence community originally approved for public use by House Intelligence Committee members and then provided to Rice for her television appearances, they said.
“The original talking points prepared by the CIA were different from the ones that were finally put out . . . even though it was clearly evident to the CIA that there was al Qaida involvement,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. He added that the references to “al Qaida involvement” were dropped for “indications of extremists.”
King quoted Petraeus as saying he didn’t know who made the revisions during a “long, interagency process.”
A senior U.S. official who’s familiar with the matter said the al Qaida references were struck from the unclassified version because they came from secret sources. Moreover, the network’s links to the attacks were tenuous, and making them public at that time could have skewed further intelligence-gathering and tainted an FBI criminal investigation into the attacks, the official said.
The unclassified talking points reflected what the CIA “believed at that point in time,” said the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue. “The points were reviewed by CIA leadership and coordinated in the interagency at a senior level. The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack. There were legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly.”
It remained unclear, however, why the CIA and the administration said there was a protest outside the consulate when Libya’s interim president and local witnesses were saying none had taken place, and administration officials said at first that they couldn’t confirm there was one.
Administration officials eventually conceded there was no protest and that the assaults appeared to involve militants from a local Islamist group, Ansar al Shariah , and others linked to al Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Many lawmakers’ post-hearing comments focused on Rice’s treatment.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., lambasted Rice’s critics, saying, “You don’t pillory the person and select Ambassador Rice because she used an unclassified talking point to say she is unqualified to be secretary of state.”
“The way it keeps going, it’s almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character,” Feinstein continued.
Feinstein read the unclassified talking points, the first of which said “currently available information” suggested that spontaneous protests in Benghazi inspired by anti-video demonstrations in Cairo “evolved into a direct assault against the United States diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.”
“There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations,” it continued, with the next point saying the assessment could change as new information was collected.
“Now as I understand the process, the CIA prepares additional talking points, which then go through the various components of the intelligence community, and those components either sign off on them, discuss them, and I believe the intelligence community signed off on these talking points,” Feinstein said.
Republicans said they still had questions about the attacks. They included why the State Department hadn’t strengthened security at the consulate and annex given that Libyan authorities had been unable to curb escalating violence by Islamist groups and militias that refused to disband after overthrowing the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
"The State Department did not take adequate measures to protect personnel,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “We need to find out more. Clearly the security measures were not adequate."