In his first testimony since stepping down last week, former CIA Director David H. Petraeus told a closed Capitol Hill briefing Friday that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya "was a terrorist attack and there were terrorists involved from the start," Rep. Peter T. King said Friday.
The New York Republican, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, spoke to reporters after emerging from a closed-door, classified briefing by Mr. Petraeus, who visited Libya last month to interview survivors of the attack in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Critics have repeatedly questioned the sequence of events and motivations of the attackers offered by top Obama administration officials in the months since the incident.
Mr. King noted that Mr. Petraeus' testimony on Friday differed from a classified briefing he gave lawmakers on Sept. 14, three days after the attack, in which he linked it to protests earlier that day in Cairo against an American-made video denigrating Islam's prophet Muhammad.
"The clear impression we were given [in the Sept. 14 briefing] was that the overwhelming amount of evidence was that it arose out of a spontaneous demonstration and it was not a terrorist attack," said Mr. King.
On Friday, however, Mr. Petreaus "told us that this was a terrorist attack, and there were terrorists involved from the start," Mr. King said.
The congressman said Mr. Petraeus' use of the word "spontaneous" was "minimized" in his account on Friday.
But Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said suggestions the administration's initial talking points for Benghazi had been changed are "completely wrong."
Mr. Smith, who attended another briefing Friday with intelligence officials that included Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said the attack on the consulate building was "somewhat spontaneous."
"Nobody has ever denied that it was a terrorist attack. What we've questioned is how far planned was it," Mr. Smith said. "It was both a terrorist attack and spontaneous, and why that has to be mutually exclusive is completely beyond me."
Lawmakers are trying to determine why Obama administration officials said publicly long after the attack that it had resulted from spontaneous protests, as well as the administration's response to the assault and security concerns before it.
Rice comments questioned
Mr. Petraeus on Friday met with the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and the House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican.
A key issue is comments by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who appeared on several talk shows on the Sunday after the attack and said that all the intelligence gathered to that time pointed to the attack as arising from spontaneous protests that then turned violent.
Critics have said the administration's initial account was an attempt to keep the controversy from boiling over during the presidential campaign, and that the real story would undercut arguments from Mr. Obama and others that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups had been largely rendered ineffective in the region.
Supporters have said Mrs. Rice's comments and those of other officials were based on the best U.S. intelligence assessments at that time.
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.
"I don't think anyone is suggesting these were nice guys who loved America before they saw the video," the official said of the Libyan attackers. "But there was a lot of evidence to suggest that the timing of the attack might have been suggested because of the protests in Cairo."
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, called the Mr. Petraeus' briefing "comprehensive" and "added to our ability to make judgments about what is clearly a failure of intelligence."
Lawmakers who attended both briefings said Mr. Petraeus opened his remarks by briefly mentioning the extramarital affair that lead to his resignation last week, but that the incident otherwise wasn't discussed.
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