Petraeus emerged from his compounding week-long fall from grace to testify behind closed doors to the House and Senate intelligence committees about what the CIA knew about the hours-long assault as it unfolded. The overarching and highly politicized question hanging over Benghazi is whether the Obama administration misrepresented the disaster by initially pointing to an anti-Islam video as the catalyst, rather than the complex terrorist attack that actually occurred. What’s begun to leak out of the Petraeus hearings is this: the former four-star general and spymaster was convinced from jump that this was the work of terrorists.
In his Friday testimony. Petraeus claimed “he thought all along that he made it clear there was terrorist involvement,” according to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). But, King said, “That was not my recollection” of Petraeus’ testimony.
Nor is it what Petraeus’ old boss was saying at the time. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, publicly explained on Sept. 28 that contemporaneous — and ultimately incorrect — intelligence reporting “led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” and “we provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress.”
Confusing matters further, Petraeus indicated to lawmakers that the “talking points” the CIA initially gave to the Obama administration and members of Congress omitted early references to terrorism. Those talking points, published on Thursday by CBS, say that the attack on the consulate was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.” They hold open the possibility that the intelligence picture will change — as, indeed, it did, significantly. Those talking points do not indicate the certainty that Petraeus now says he possessed to attribute the attack to Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia.
According to King, Petraeus couldn’t explain the discrepancy. King said the talking points went through an “interagency” review, but the CIA ultimately “said, ‘Okay for it to go.’”
The Obama administration’s explanation of the assault on Benghazi evolved from emphasizing an ultimately incorrect connection to the anti-Islam video to blaming Benghazi on a terrorist assault. Its defense is that the intelligence shifted; critics believe that Obama was covering up a terrorist attack to ensure his reelection. There are numerous unanswered questions about what happened in Benghazi: for instance, why security at the consulate was so light despite numerous precursor attacks that summer. Petraeus, finally out the door of the administration and under investigation by his own former agency, just added a few more, rather than clearing up the existing ones.
We’ll update this post as more information from Petraeus’ testimony leaks out.
Update, 4:52 p.m.: According to the Associated Press, the CIA excised mentions of terrorist groups from the talking points “so as not to alert them that U.S. intelligence was on their trail.” Pentagon spokesman George Little had said the day following the attack that the U.S. would retaliate, but did not give any specifics as to who was responsible.