Former CIA director David H. Petraeus said a reference to possible al-Qaeda connections was dropped from “talking points” used by the Obama administration in its initial account of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, according to lawmakers.
The testimony by Petraeus today before closed sessions of the Senate and House intelligence committee set off a new round in the political dispute over the Obama administration’s early description of the deadly attack as developing from a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islamic video.
Democrats said the memo was amended to eliminate sensitive material, drawn from classified sources, in preparing an account for public consumption of the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. A version of the Sept. 15 memo released today by Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, refers to “extremists” rather than naming al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for its early description of the attack, saying it may have been an attempt to play down the role of al-Qaeda during the president’s re-election campaign. Today, Republicans said the testimony by Petraeus demands explanations.
“It’s still not clear how the talking points emerged,” Republican Representative Peter King of New York, a member of the House intelligence committee, said today after the briefing by Petraeus. “No one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points.”
While Petraeus told the House panel today that he didn’t know how the reference to al-Qaeda connections was dropped from the memo, the former CIA chief said it went “through a long process” with other federal agencies involved, according to King.
Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said “the intelligence community had all signed off on” the talking points. He said the version used in public may have been “at variance” with one that contained classified information.
Representative Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat, said, “They went from a classified version to an unclassified version, and that’s why it was changed.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice depended on the intelligence community’s talking points when she said on Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 that the assault developed from a spontaneous demonstration that was “hijacked” by militants, according to the administration.
The memo released by Nelson matches that description.
“Demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex,” according to the memo, which also said, “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
Nelson, a member of the Senate intelligence panel, said in a statement that “the talking points were necessarily vague in places because they were written at an unclassified level.”
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said Sept. 28 that the intelligence community had revised its initial assessment to say that the assault was “a deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”
A U.S. intelligence official who was involved in preparing the memo said today he didn’t know whether the word “extremists” was chosen over “terrorists” in the final version given to Rice in order to protect intelligence sources and methods or because it would be less volatile politically in the U.S. election campaign as well as in the Islamic world. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The evidence of what happened in Benghazi matches neither the Obama administration’s initial accounts nor Republican portrayals of the incident, Bloomberg News reported last month. There wasn’t a peaceful demonstration against the video that grew violent, nor an al-Qaeda-planned attack.
Instead, the assault on the Benghazi compound was a hastily organized act by local men using weapons widely available in Libya, according to evidence at the scene and U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity about the intelligence they saw.
Muhammed Jamal abu Ahmad, a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, the militia believed to have mounted the attack, has ties to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa. Still, the al-Qaeda groups learned of the assault only after one of the attackers called to boast of it, information gained by U.S. intelligence agencies through phone calls and other communications, according to the officials.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia has denied the group’s involvement.
“I still think there’s some confusion within the administration,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, said today. “I would encourage them to get the information out because there’s still a lot of unrest in the country.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the intelligence committee, said after a closed session yesterday that the panel saw a “composite” film that showed the Libya attack taking place “in real time.” McKeon said today that Clapper was working to declassify the film, which McKeon called a “45-minute recap” of the attack, to make it public.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director Nov. 9 after an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned up evidence he had an extramarital affair. Petraeus told the House committee today that his resignation was an honorable response after his “dishonorable” behavior, according to Representative Bill Young, a Florida Republican.
Feinstein said the Senate panel didn’t press Petraeus to discuss his affair because “we wanted to spare him that.”
Dozens of reporters and photographers who gathered for the Petraeus briefings never saw him. They were kept at a distance from the House and Senate meeting rooms by Capitol Police officers, and the retired general came and went through back entrances.
Debate over Rice’s account of the Benghazi attack has stirred a political storm that is intensifying with the prospect that Obama may nominate her to replace the departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he is “adamantly opposed and will do everything I can to keep her from getting confirmed.” Republican colleague Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has made the same vow.
Obama rebuked McCain and Graham during a press conference on Nov. 14, saying Rice has done “exemplary work” and that “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Feinstein said today that Rice’s Republican critics are trying to “assassinate” a possible nominee. “We take issue at that,” she said.