Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) speaks to the media after a hearing on the Benghazi… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Appearing before two congressional committees in closed-door sessions, former CIA Director David H. Petraeus did little to ease the partisan divide over whether Obama administration officials misled the public after heavily armed militants killed four Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi, lawmakers said Friday.
Petraeus told the House and Senate intelligence committees that he believed almost immediately that the Sept. 11 assault was an organized terrorist attack, according to lawmakers and staff sources. But he said the administration initially withheld the suspicion that extremists with links to Al Qaeda were involved to avoid tipping off the terrorist groups.
Petraeus also said some early classified reports appeared to support Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when she said five days after the deadly raid in Libya that it had grown out of a protest that was hijacked by extremists — comments that some Republicans contend were meant to downplay the significance of the attack before the presidential election. Even now, the intelligence community has evidence that some attackers were motivated by protests earlier that day in Cairo over an anti-Islamic video, sources familiar with the intelligence said.
"The general completely debunked the idea that there was some politicization of the process," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said.
Petraeus, a retired four-star general who has not appeared in public since he resigned from the CIA on Nov. 9 after admitting to an extramarital affair, avoided a large throng of reporters and cameras before and after the back-to-back sessions. Lawmakers lined up to speak after the hearings, however.
Republicans said they were unshaken in their belief that Rice and other administration officials misused intelligence to bolster White House claims that it had decimated the leadership of Al Qaeda. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have vowed to block any effort to make Rice secretary of State after the departure of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she will step down next year.
Rice relied on unclassified written guidance, known as talking points, from the CIA, Democrats said. But some key words were changed from initial drafts as other agencies weighed in, Republicans countered. The word "attack" was changed to "demonstration," for example, and the phrase "with ties to Al Qaeda" was removed, said a senior Republican congressional official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Precisely who made the changes is not clear. "If it was altered by somebody not within the intelligence community, we should know that," the official said.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points said the CIA drafted them. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the language was reviewed by CIA leadership and coordinated with other agencies.
"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," the official said.
"People assumed that it was apparent in this context that extremists who attack U.S. facilities and kill Americans are, by definition, terrorists," the official said. "… The controversy this word choice caused came as a surprise."
"The points were a reflection of the understanding at the time that could be provided at an unclassified level," the official added. "They were preliminary and were never meant to be the final word on the issue."
Intelligence officials say the changes were part of a normal vetting process for public comments, and were consistent with the CIA's assessment at the time. That assessment was revised later to discount the video as a motivating factor for the armed militants who stormed and burned the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and hours later launched a mortar barrage on a CIA compound 1 1/2 miles away by road.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and an embassy employee were killed at the mission, and two CIA contractors were killed later by the mortars.
The extent of Al Qaeda's involvement also remains in dispute. Democrats and administration officials say the ties between the militants who attacked the mission and Al Qaeda's North African affiliate are remote, while some Republicans describe the Benghazi incident as an attack by Al Qaeda.
A few Republicans said they believed the more important question is whether U.S. security was adequate for the threat, and whether warnings were ignored.