Friday, November 16, 2012
Petraeus testifies CIA's Libya talking points were changed, lawmaker says
Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified in a closed-door hearing Friday morning that his agency determined immediately after the Sept. 11 Libya attack that "Al Qaeda involvement" was suspected -- but the line was taken out in the final version circulated to administration officials, according to a top lawmaker who was briefed.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who spoke to reporters after Petraeus testified before the House Intelligence Committee, indicated he and other lawmakers still have plenty of questions about the aftermath of the attack.
"No one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points," he said.
Petraeus was heading next to the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify. At the same time, lawmakers unexpectedly convened a briefing with top members of various committees to examine a Sept. 25 letter to President Obama that asked a series of classified questions on Benghazi. Petraeus' testimony both challenges the Obama administration's repeated claims that the attack was a "spontaneous" protest over an anti-Islam video, and according to King conflicts with his own briefing to lawmakers on Sept. 14.
Sources have said Petraeus, in that briefing, also described the attack as a protest that spun out of control. "His testimony today was that from the start, he had told us that this was a terrorist attack," King said, adding that he told Petraeus he had a "different recollection." Still, the claim that the CIA's original talking points were changed is sure to stoke controversy on the Hill.
"The original talking points were much more specific about Al Qaeda involvement. And yet the final ones just said indications of extremists," King said, adding that the final version was the product of a vague "inter-agency process." Further, King said a CIA analyst specifically told lawmakers that the Al Qaeda affiliates line "was taken out."
Lawmakers are focusing on the talking points issue because of concern over the account U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice gave on five Sunday shows on Sept. 16, when she repeatedly claimed the attack was spontaneous -- Rice's defenders have since insisted she was merely basing her statements on the intelligence at the time.
The suggestion that the intelligence was altered raised questions about who altered it, with King asking if "the White House changed the talking points." One source told Fox News that Petraeus "has no idea what was provided" to Rice or who was the author of the talking points she used.
"He had no idea she was going on talk shows" until the White House announced it one or two days before, the source said. While Petraeus resigned last Friday over an extra-marital affair, his testimony Friday was expected to focus on Libya as opposed to personal matters. King said it barely came up, and only when Petraeus was asked if the affair and investigation had any impact on his testimony on Libya. "He said no," King said.
The pressure was on Petraeus to set the record straight, after other top intelligence officials struggled a day earlier to explain why their initial talking points after the Libya attack minimized the role of militant groups. Lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees heard testimony Thursday in private meetings with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Acting CIA Director Mike Morell.
But Fox News was told there were heated exchanges on the House side, particularly over the talking points that administration officials relied on in the days after the Sept. 11 strike. Fox News was told that neither Clapper nor Morell knew for sure who finalized that information.
And they could not explain why they minimized the role of a regional Al Qaeda branch as well as the militant Ansar al-Sharia despite evidence of their involvement. Further, Fox News was told Morell was pushed to explain why, during a Sept. 14 briefing, Petraeus seemed wedded to the explanation that the attack was in response to an anti-Islam video. Morell apparently said he wasn't at that briefing and had nothing further to add.
Lawmakers continue to express concerns on several fronts -- on whether warnings in the months preceding Sept. 11 were ignored, and on why the administration first insisted the attack was a "spontaneous" act. Rice has been the focal point of that criticism. Obama, though, in his first post-election press conference Wednesday, called the criticism "outrageous" and told those lawmakers to "go after me" instead.
California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff also came to Rice's defense Thursday, saying after the House intelligence committee hearing that Rice was given the intelligence community's "best assessment" at the time. "Those who have suggested that Ambassador Rice was politicizing the intelligence or misrepresenting what the intelligence community was putting forward as its best assessment are either unfamiliar with the facts, or willfully disregarding them," he said.