The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee 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. Michael Rogers, Michigan Republican, 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 Rice relied on during her now-infamous round of TV interviews on Sept. 16.
“There was not an intelligence failure. The intelligence community had it right, and they had it right early,” Mr. Rogers said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
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. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disputed Mr. Roger’s assessment, saying it is still unclear who changed the narrative — 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 had told her committee 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.
Congress is trying to determine the administration’s response during and after the attack, as well as why officials persisted in saying it resulted from spontaneous protests days after the military-style assault on the diplomatic compound and a CIA annex building.
According to intelligence officials, the talking-points changes removed the names of two extremist groups believed involved in the attack — the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia militia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror network’s affiliate in North Africa.
An intelligence official told The Washington Times last week 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 believe administration officials changed the talking points because it ran counter to a major theme in President Obama’s re-election campaign: that al Qaeda had been decimated.
They also have pointed to officials’ insistence that the attack was a response to an American-made video posted on the Internet that denigrated Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and led to deadly anti-U.S. demonstrations in a dozen different countries around the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mrs. Rice, as the official who stuck longest and most vociferously to the talking points, has borne the brunt of Republican criticism, setting the stage for a potential confirmation battle in the Senate.
President 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 Servies committees.