The Obama administration dropped references to possible al-Qaeda connections in the attack on a U.S. mission in Libya from its initial public remarks to protect intelligence sources, not the president’s re-election campaign, intelligence officials said.
The information linking individuals to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources and methods, and because those links were -- and remain -- tenuous, it made sense to be cautious, the official said. In addition, the official said, it’s important not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages.
The administration’s “talking points” took center stage yesterday when former CIA Director David H. Petraeus testified about the attack in separate closed-door sessions of the Senate and House intelligence committees. His appearances sparked a new round in the political dispute over the Obama administration’s early description of the attack as developing from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamic video.
Petraeus, who resigned last week citing an extramarital affair, told lawmakers yesterday that the Democratic administration’s unclassified talking points were revised to use the word “extremists” and didn’t mention al-Qaeda. That led some Republican lawmakers to claim the change might have been an attempt to diminish the possibility of an al-Qaeda role in the attack during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign
The talking points weren’t edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that the armed attack, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations that included classified intelligence-gathering methods.
The controversy stirred by the memo’s word choice came as a surprise because saying “extremists” were involved shouldn’t preclude terrorist participation in the attack, the official said. Obama administration officials assumed that extremists who attack U.S. diplomatic facilities and kill Americans are, by definition, terrorists, the official said. Because various militant elements were involved in the attack, the administration used the term extremists to capture the range of participants.
The Central Intelligence Agency drafted the talking points, which reflected what it believed at the time about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, according to the official, who’s familiar with the drafting of the memos. CIA leaders reviewed them and coordinated the final version with top officials at other agencies, the official said.
Neither Petraeus’s testimony nor intelligence officials’ explanation is likely to end the Washington conflict over the administration’s initial characterization of the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has been criticized by Republican lawmakers for saying on Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 that the assault developed from a spontaneous demonstration that was “hijacked” by militants. Rice, a possible nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, relied on the talking points during her talk show appearances, according to administration officials.
Republican lawmakers are pressing the administration to explain its early statements, and expressed dissatisfaction yesterday with what they learned from Petraeus.
“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 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 yesterday 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.
A version of the Sept. 15 memo released yesterday by Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and a member of the Senate intelligence panel, refers to “extremists” rather than naming al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
“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.”
Today, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One that the talking points and Rice’s statements “indicate that we believed that extremists were involved in this attack.”
‘Act of Terror’
“The president himself said it was an act of terror,” Rhodes said. “Naturally you have to do some work to examine exactly who those extremists are and exactly what the sequence of events were.”
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.”
Two other U.S. officials, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information, said the House intelligence committee asked U.S. intelligence agencies for unclassified talking points on Sept. 14. At about the same time, the two officials said, Petraeus offered what they described as a classified preliminary assessment of the attack, which one of the officials said underscored the word “preliminary.”
The classified assessment cited the apparent involvement of the Libyan extremist group Ansar al-Sharia and of individuals with ties to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in northern Africa and Yemen, the officials said.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia has denied the group’s involvement.
While Muhammed Jamal abu Ahmad, a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, has ties to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa, the officials said, he and others associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates learned of the assault only after attackers called them to boast of it.
The initial assessments also said that, contrary to allegations of a pre-planned attack, the assault on the Benghazi compound was a hastily organized act by local men using weapons widely available in Libya, according to the officials.
Senior officials from a number of agencies, including the National Security Council, the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the State Department, reviewed the classified reporting beginning on the afternoon of Sept. 14. They finished work on the unclassified talking points the next day, said two officials who participated in the process. They said the drafters were under no pressure to gloss over the fact that the assault was by definition a terrorist act.
Nelson said in a statement that “the talking points were necessarily vague in places because they were written at an unclassified level.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the intelligence committee, said after a closed session Nov. 15 that the panel saw a “composite” film that showed the Libya attack taking place “in real time.” McKeon said yesterday 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 yesterday that his resignation was an honorable response after his “dishonorable” behavior, according to Representative Bill Young, a Florida Republican.