While the testimony is expected to focus on Benghazi, the hearing arrives at a time of growing tensions between Congress and the CIA over such matters as the Bush administration’s interrogation rules and mutual charges of spying and illegality between the Senate intelligence committee and the agency.
Lawmakers are likely to press Mr. Morell for a reaction to reports this week that a classified Senate intelligence report has concluded that harsh interrogation methods used in the years after Sept. 11 provided no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and that the CIA misled Congress on the matter.
The CIA disputes that conclusion. The Senate panel is expected to vote Thursday on sending the Obama administration a 400-page executive summary of the “enhanced interrogation” report to start a monthslong declassification process.
One of the key issues likely to come up during the House hearing involves what was said during a series of secure teleconferences between CIA officials in Washington and Libya from the time of the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, to the completion of Mrs. Rice’s talking points for dissemination on the Sunday talk shows Sept. 16.
Multiple sources confirmed to The Times on Monday that the station chief’s email to Mr. Morell was written after one of the teleconferences during which senior CIA officials in Washington — Mr. Morell among them — made clear to the Tripoli station chief that they were examining alternative information that suggested there was a protest before the attack.
After the exchange, Mr. Morell signed off on the CIA talking points given to Mrs. Rice promoting what turned out to be the false narrative of a protest. The development ultimately triggered an angry reaction from Republicans, who have long claimed that the Obama administration, with an eye on the November elections, was downplaying the role of terrorists in order to protect the president’s record on counterterrorism.
What is not clear is whether the email was in any way referring to the conflicting intelligence streams about a protest in Benghazi.
Alternatively, the email notes that Mr. Morell was uncomfortable with an initial draft of the talking points batted back and forth between White House and CIA officials “because they seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack” in Benghazi.
During interviews with The Times, several former senior intelligence officials have lamented the whole “talking points” issue, saying the CIA was caught in the middle of the White House, Congress and the reality on the ground in Benghazi while crafting the points.
The reason the CIA ended up taking the lead on the talking points was because, as news of the attack was breaking around the world, lawmakers on the House intelligence committee were seeking guidance from the agency on how to respond to media questions without revealing classified information.
Specifically, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and the committee chairman, and ranking Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland asked for the guidance.
One former senior intelligence official told The Times that as word circulated through the inner circles of the intelligence community that the CIA was working on the talking points, officials within the Obama administration steered the mission toward crafting something Mrs. Rice could say on national talk shows.
“In essence, the talking points got repurposed,” the former official said. “What it turned into — and I don’t think Michael ever knew this, it’s something to watch for in his testimony this week — was, ‘Let’s hand this thing to the U.N. ambassador and make it what she should say.’”