Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in June 2011. (Cliff Owen / Associated…)
WASHINGTON – Appearing before two congressional committees in closed-door sessions, former CIA Director David Petraeus did little to dispel the partisan divide over whether Obama administration officials misled the public in the days after heavily armed militants killed four Americans in Benghazi,Libya, 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 suspicion that extremists with links to al Qaeda were involved to avoid tipping off the terrorist groups.
Petraeus also said some early intelligence reports appeared to support Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when she said five days after the deadly raid 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 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," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).
Petraeus, who has not appeared in public since he resigned from the CIA on Nov. 9 after admitting that he had an extramarital affair, avoided a throng of reporters and cameras before and after the two back-to-back sessions. Lawmakers lined up to speak after the hearings, however.
Democrats defended Rice and the administration, while some Republicans said they were unshaken in their belief that intelligence was misused to bolster White House claims that it had decimated the leadership of Al Qaeda. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have vowed to block any effort to make Rice the next secretary of State to replace 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, a senior Republican congressional official said.
Precisely who made the changes is not yet clear. "If it was altered by somebody not within the intelligence community, we should know that," the official said.
The CIA ultimately signed off on those changes, the official said. Intelligence officials say the changes were part of a normal vetting process for public comments, and was consistent with the CIA’s assessment at the time. That assessment later was revised to discount the video as a motivating factor before armed militants stormed and burned the State Department mission in Benghazi, and hours later, launched a mortar barrage on a CIA compound 1½ miles away by road.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and an embassy employee were killed at the mission, and two CIA contractors were killed later by the mortar fire.
The nighttime attack was not planned in advance, however, and initially appeared as a mob of looters, intelligence officials have said.
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 believe that the more important question is whether U.S. security was adequate for the threat, and whether warnings were ignored.
"The focus is moving toward 'Did they have enough security?'" said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla). "Clearly the security measures were inadequate, despite an overwhelming and growing amount of information that showed the area in Benghazi was dangerous, particularly on the night of Sept. 11."
Lawmakers declined to discuss where security arrangements fell short, saying some details are classified and the investigation is ongoing.
The Senate Intelligence Committee may issue a public report about Benghazi, staffers said, and a State Department accountability review board is also investigating.
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook
[For the Record, 11:38 p.m. PST Nov. 18: An earlier version of this post referenced the involvement of Al Qaeda affiliates. That has since been corrected to extremists with links to Al Qaeda.]