Top Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees said Sunday that Obama administration political appointees removed references to al Qaeda-linked groups from intelligence agencies’ accounts of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the White House’s National Security Council Deputies Committee had altered an unclassified summary of what U.S. intelligence knew about the attack, which U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice relied on during her now-infamous round of TV interviews Sept. 16.
“There was not an intelligence failure. The intelligence community had it right, and they had it right early,” Mr. Rogers, Michigan Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” after his committee received a classified briefing last week from senior intelligence officials.
Intelligence agencies’ accounts of the attack, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, went to the “Deputies Committee, that’s populated by appointees from the administration. That’s where the narrative changed,” Mr. Rogers said. “The narrative was wrong, and the intelligence was right.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which received the same briefing, said lawmakers concluded that the National Security Council must have made the changes by a process of elimination.
“We had every leader of the intelligence community there,” Mr. Chambliss, Georgia Republican, told “Fox News Sunday.” “Everybody there was asked, ‘Do you know who made these changes?’ And nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”
Several congressional committees are probing the administration’s response to the attack, as well as why officials persisted for days in saying that the military-style assault on the diplomatic compound and a CIA annex resulted from spontaneous protests against an anti-Islamic video produced in the U.S.
Criticism has centered on Mrs. Rice, but Democratic lawmakers and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, defended her Sunday, saying she merely repeated the initial but inaccurate conclusions of the intelligence community, as reflected in the unclassified narrative.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, disputed Mr. Rogers’ account, saying it is still unclear who changed the narrative, prepared in a format known as “talking points.”
“The allegation that the White House changed those talking points, that is false,” said Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat.
She added that intelligence officials told her committee that the talking points were changed because it was not clear which groups had been involved in the consulate attack.
“The answer given to us is [U.S. intelligence agencies] didn’t want to name a group until [they] had some certainty,” the senator said.
According to intelligence officials, the talking-points changes removed the names of two extremist groups suspected in the attack — the Libyan Ansar al-Shariah militia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s affiliate in North Africa.
An intelligence official told The Washington Times that the changes also were intended to protect intelligence sources, because evidence of the groups’ involvement came from highly classified electronic surveillance methods.
Mrs. Feinstein said her staff has been instructed to get to the bottom of the matter and determine who is responsible.
“We are going to find out who made changes in the original statement. Until we do, I really think it’s unwarranted to make accusations,” she said.
Republicans have said they think administration officials changed the narrative because it ran counter to a major theme in President Obama’s re-election campaign: that al Qaeda had been decimated.
Mr. Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, told “Fox News Sunday” that he does not see what the fuss is about.
“As I look at what we now know the intelligence community was saying that week, and I look at Ambassador Rice’s statements on television on the following Sunday morning, I don’t find anything inconsistent between those two,” he said.
Mrs. Rice, as the official who stuck longest and most vociferously to the talking points, has endured the brunt of Republican criticism, setting the stage for a potential confirmation battle in the Senate.
Mr. Obama reportedly is considering nominating Mrs. Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she wants to leave the administration and politics.
“The story [Mrs. Rice] told reinforced a political narrative helpful to the president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
“[Mrs. Rice] is the most politically compliant person they could find. I don’t know what she knew, but I know the story she told was misleading,” said Mr. Graham, who is a member of the Senate intelligence and Armed Services committees.
Confusion and terminology
On Friday, Rep. Peter T. King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that former CIA Director David H. Petraeus told lawmakers in a closed-door session that the Sept. 11 assault on the consulate “was a terrorist attack and there were terrorists involved from the start.”
Mr. Petraeus visited Libya last month to interview survivors of the attack before resigning as CIA director this month.
Mr. King, New York Republican, noted that Mr. Petraeus’ testimony Friday differed from a classified briefing he gave lawmakers 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,” Mr. King said, adding that Mr. Petraeus’ use of the word “spontaneous” was “minimized” in his account Friday.
“He had told us that this was a terrorist attack and there were terrorists involved from the start,” Mr. King said.
A U.S. intelligence official told The Times that the issue is partly a result of confusion.
“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.
Wording talking points clearly enough to reflect intelligence but vaguely enough to protect its source 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.
The talking points referred to “extremists” because that has been for many years the Obama administration’s, as well as the George W. Bush administration’s, approved terminology to refer to suspected al Qaeda supporters. That’s why officials didn’t call the attackers “terrorists,” even though they were wielding heavy weapons and were supported by mortar fire, the official said.
“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.”