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Ms. Rice “was using talking points put out originally by the CIA, signed off by the intelligence community,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “I don’t think she should be pilloried for this. She did what I would’ve done or anyone else would’ve done.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and who attended the Senate briefing, added the discrepancy largely was because of the “difference between what is classified and what is unclassified.”

“It very important to understand that when people are talking in a classified setting, they can say much more than they can say in an unclassified setting,” he said. “The notes that Ambassador Rice was speaking from were in an unclassified setting.”

But Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who also sits on the Senate intelligence panel, said that Ms. Rice “went beyond” the talking points when she suggested the administration had “decimated al Qaeda.”

“She knew at that point in time that al Qaeda was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens,” he said.

A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times that the issue is partly a result of conflicting evidence gathered during a violent and confusing evening.

“There was [electronic surveillance] which suggested the attackers were prompted to saddle up the posse by what they were seeing in Cairo,” said the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media.

There were more than a dozen separate intelligence reports to that effect, the official said.

But the unclassified talking points for officials prepared by the CIA could not mention those reports directly because doing so would expose intelligence sources and methods — such as the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor cellphone traffic.

A question of terminology

Wording talking points clearly enough to reflect intelligence but vaguely enough to protect sources is “an art, not a science, and this got screwed up somewhere,” the intelligence official said.

Another source of possible confusion is terminology, the official said.

Mr. Petraeus told lawmakers Friday that another agency working on the talking points with the CIA had used the term “extremists” to refer to the attackers.

The CIA draft had described the attackers as supporters of the Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Shariah and al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Mr. Petraeus said he did not know which agency had made the change, a congressional staffer told the Associated Press.

The talking points referred to “extremists” because that has been for the approved U.S. government terminology for referring to possible al Qaeda supporters since the George W. Bush administration, the intelligence official told The Times. That is why officials did not by and large call the attackers “terrorists,” even though they were wielding heavy weapons and were supported by mortar fire.

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