Former CIA Deputy Denies Politics in Benghazi

A former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency said politics played no role in the flawed initial account of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Rejecting Republican assertions that his agency participated in an Obama administration effort to mislead the public about the nature of the assault, Michael Morell said today that there were no ulterior motives in the drafting of “talking points” used to explain the incident.

“None of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process -- none,” Morell told the House intelligence committee in a rare public session.

Republicans have said the Obama administration downplayed the terrorist nature of the attack to deflect criticism of its anti-terrorism efforts in the months before the 2012 mid-term elections. They also have indicated they will use the State Department’s failure to better protect the diplomatic outpost as an issue against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in 2016.

The talking points, issued four days after the attacks, said “spontaneously inspired” demonstrations in Benghazi over an anti-Islamic video “evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post.” It also said “extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”

There wasn’t a protest at the Benghazi mission, Morell acknowledged today. Instead, attackers with links to terrorist groups stormed the gates of the compound on the evening of Sept. 11 and set fire to the mission. That attack, and a subsequent one hours later at a CIA annex, killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

‘Best’ Information

“Our analysts reached their initial judgment because that is where the best available information at the time led them, not because of politics,” Morell said.

“The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points, nor did they ask me to,” he said.

Republicans didn’t back down from their criticism.

“I must conclude that the White House used your talking points to perpetrate its own misguided political agenda,” Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the committee’s Republican chairman, told Morell today. “I believe that the White House wanted America to believe in al-Qaeda to be on the run, thus they needed the attacks to be in response to anti-Islamic video.”

Morell, who is now a counselor to Beacon Global Strategies LLC in Washington, said the CIA juggled conflicting intelligence about the nature of the attacks in their immediate aftermath.

Station Chief

The CIA station chief in Tripoli, the Libyan capital 404 miles (650 kilometers) east of Benghazi by air, sent a memo on Sept. 15, four days after the attacks, saying he didn’t think there had been any protest, Morell said. He said he brought that memo to the attention of CIA analysts, who stood by their judgment that a demonstration had occurred.

Morell said he wasn’t persuaded by the station chief’s assessment because it was based mostly on press reports and an account of CIA security contractors who were sent to Benghazi that evening and didn’t see any protest.

State Department officials have said they knew at the time there was no protest.

“The analysts did not have access to what the people on the ground knew or were saying at the time,” Morell said.

As for why CIA analysts didn’t pick up the phone and call people who were on the ground and knew what had happened, Morell said, “I didn’t want my analysts being investigators.”

Those explanations did little to satisfy Republicans on the committee, who continued to say the CIA provided misleading information to aid the Obama administration.

‘How Weird’

“That was the narrative of the White House in the run-up to the presidential election,” said Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a former Republican presidential candidate. “How weird that was reflected in the talking points.”

Morell also said a reference to an al-Qaeda connection to the attacks was removed from the talking points because the source of that information was classified. Rogers said he couldn’t understand why mentioning al-Qaeda would compromise classified sources.

The talking points became the basis for the public explanation of the attacks offered by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who’s now President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, on Sept. 16, 2012 on five Sunday television talk shows.

Democrats said at worst the talking points may have been sloppily drafted.

“We have also found no conspiracies in the editing of the talking points, only never-ending conspiracy theories,” said Representative Charles “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.

Morell, who stepped down from his CIA post last year, said he learned a lesson from the Benghazi episode: “We should really not be in the business of writing unclassified talking points for the American people.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.