WASHINGTON — Former CIA director David Petraeus said Friday that a reference to possible al-Qaida connections was dropped from “talking points” used by the Obama administration in its initial accounts of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, according to a Republican lawmaker.
“It’s still not clear how the talking points emerged,” Rep. Peter King of New York, a member of the House intelligence committee, said Friday after a closed-door briefing for the panel by Petraeus. “No one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points.”
The possibility that references to potential terrorist links were taken out of the account may further fuel Republican criticism of President Barack Obama’s administration for its early description of the attack as developing from a spontaneous demonstration. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the assault.
While Petraeus told the House panel Friday that he didn’t know how the reference to al-Qaida connections was dropped from the talking points, the former CIA chief said the memo went “through a long process” with other federal agencies involved, according to King.
Democrats challenged King’s account after Petraeus met in consecutive briefings for the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said “the intelligence community had all signed off on” the talking points. He said the version used in public may have been “at variance” with one that contained classified information.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., also said “they went from a classified version to an unclassified version, and that’s why it was changed.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice depended on the intelligence community’s talking points when she said on Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 that the assault developed from a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants, according to the administration.
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said Sept. 28 that the intelligence community had revised that assessment.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the intelligence committee, said after a closed session Thursday that the panel saw a “composite” film that showed the Libya attack taking place “in real time.” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said Friday that Clapper was working to declassify the film, which McKeon called a “45-minute recap” of the attack, to make it public.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director Nov. 9 after an inquiry by the FBI disclosed he had an extramarital affair. Petraeus told the House committee Friday that his resignation was an honorable response after his “dishonorable” behavior, according to Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla.
Feinstein said the Senate panel didn’t press Petraeus to discuss his affair because “we wanted to spare him that.”
Dozens of reporters and photographers who gathered for the Petraeus briefings never saw him. They were kept at a distance from the House and Senate meeting rooms by Capitol Police officers, and the retired general came and went through back entrances.
Debate over Rice’s account of the Benghazi attack have produced a political storm over the prospect that Obama may nominate her to replace the departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he is “adamantly opposed and will do everything I can to keep her from getting confirmed.” Republican colleague Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has made the same vow.
Obama rebuked McCain and Graham during a press conference during a press conference on Nov. 14, saying Rice has done “exemplary work” and that “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Feinstein said Friday that Rice’s Republican critics are trying to “assassinate” a possible nominee. “We take issue at that,” she said.