WASHINGTON - Testifying out of sight, ex-CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress yesterday that classified intelligence quickly showed that the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but that the administration withheld the suspected role of al-Qaida affiliates to avoid tipping them off.
WASHINGTON — Testifying out of sight, ex-CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress yesterday that classified intelligence quickly showed that the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but that the administration withheld the suspected role of al-Qaida affiliates to avoid tipping them off.
The recently resigned spy chief explained that references to terrorist groups suspected of carrying out the violence were removed from the initial public explanation of what caused the attack so as not to alert them that U.S. intelligence was on their trail, according to lawmakers who attended Petraeus’ private briefings.
He also said it initially was unclear whether the militants had infiltrated a demonstration to cover their attack.
The retired four-star general addressed the House and Senate intelligence committees in back-to-back, private hearings as questions persisted over what the Obama administration knew in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi and why its public description did not match intelligence agencies’ assessments.
After the hearings, lawmakers who questioned Petraeus said he testified that the CIA’s draft talking points in response to the assault on the diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. Petraeus said that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency deleted it.
Adding to the explanation, a senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points said that a reason the references to al-Qaida were deleted was that the information came from classified sources and the links were, and still are, tenuous. The administration also did not want to prejudice a criminal investigation, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not done for political reasons during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
“The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “He completely debunked that idea.”
But Republicans remain critical of the administration’s handling of the case. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Petraeus’ testimony showed that “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.”
Petraeus told lawmakers that protesters literally walked in and set fire to the facility, according to a congressional official who attended the briefing. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens died from smoke inhalation. Petraeus said security at the CIA annex was much better, but the attackers had armaments to get in there.
Separately yesterday, the Senate Democratic leader rejected a request from Sen. John McCain and two other senators for a Watergate-style committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. In a letter to McCain, Sen. Harry Reid said several committees in the House and Senate already are investigating and he would not allow the Senate to be used as a “venue for baseless partisan attacks.”
Petraeus was giving his first Capitol Hill testimony since resigning last week over an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Lawmakers said he did not discuss that scandal except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure and say that Benghazi had nothing to do with his decision to resign. Lawmakers did not question him further on those points.
Petraeus was brought to a room beneath the Capitol, avoiding crowds of photographers and TV cameras.
He testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but that those names were replaced with the word extremist in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staff member said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said Petraeus explained that the CIA’s draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including him, and everyone signed off on it.
“The assessment that was publicly shared in unclassified talking points went through a process of editing,” Udall said. “The extremist description was put in because in an unclassified document you want to be careful who you identify as being involved.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said it is unclear how the final talking points developed. The edited version was used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her out for TV interviews. Republicans have criticized Rice for saying it appeared the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.
“The fact is, the reference to al-Qaida was taken out somewhere along the line by someone outside the intelligence community,” King said. “We need to find out who did it and why.”