Members of the House Intelligence Committee held a classified session Tuesday with the CIA’s former Libya station chief, whose assessment that there had been no protest leading before the Benghazi terrorist attacks was left out of the Obama administration’s talking points used on national television.
While the CIA would neither confirm nor deny the session on Capitol Hill, other sources familiar with the development told The Washington Times that committee members sought the station chief’s perspective on the talking points ahead of a long-anticipated public hearing Wednesday — during which former Deputy CIA Director Michael J. Morell is slated to testify.
Lawmakers say the hearing will delve into why Mr. Morell and other agency officials in Washington did not include the station chief’s assessments in claims by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice to assert during several news talk shows that the Benghazi attacks grew out of a protest over an anti-islam video.
The discussion Wednesday will home in, lawmakers say, on a series of secure-video teleconferences held between senior officials in Washington and officials based in Libya during the days immediately following the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.
Sources directly familiar with the CIA’s early gathering of the Benghazi intelligence told the Times on Tuesday that Mr. Morell attended a secure video conference call — known in intelligence circles as a deputies meeting — on the morning of Sept. 13, just two days after the Benghazi attacks.
During the call, Mr. Morell provided participants, including CIA officials in Libya, with the current thinking of intelligence analysts that the attacks had been carried out by extremists, but may have been an outgrowth of protests inspired by an anti-Islam video earlier that day.
At the time, the intelligence community’s assessment was that a possible protest outside the State Department’s Benghazi compound may have provided a convenient opportunity for the terrorists to carry out the attack.
But by Sept. 15, the CIA station chief in Tripoli had talked directly to his team in Benghazi, which had come to the defense of the compound during the attack, according to sources who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.
The sources said that the station chief relayed to his superiors in Washington in an email that the CIA personnel on the ground found no evidence that the attack had been an escalation of any protest.
However, the CIA officials at headquarters understood that the Benghazi CIA personnel had arrived at the State Department compound from a nearby CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city, roughly an hour into the attack — and had not been at compound when the violence initially began. As a result, CIA analysts were not yet prepared to change their initial assessments.
But Mr. Morell let officials know inside the Obama administration that the initial thinking about a videotaped-inspired protest leading to main attack was being challenged by some eyewitnesses and other information. Nonetheless, Mrs. Rice went on television the next day to blame the anti-Islam video.
Over the next four days, however, CIA officials gained access to the video security tapes and by Sept. 20 had definitively concluded that no protest had formed outside the compound before the attack, the sources said.
What is not clear is who specifically was on the Sept. 13 or other secure teleconferences around that time — specifically whether any senior officials from the White House were on the calls.
One source close to the situation said Mr. Morell and others in Washington were joined on at least one of the calls by the CIA station chief and by State Department’s then-Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks — both of whom were at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
What got said during the calls has emerged as one of the major bones of contention in the nearly two years of political fireworks and congressional investigations into the Benghazi attack.
Several Republican lawmakers argue the calls may finally help to explain why the talking points used by Mrs. Rice were crafted in the way that they were. The lawmakers have long argued that the Obama administration, with an eye on the November 2012 elections, intentionally pushed the false video narrative to downplay the role of terrorists in the attacks and to protect the president’s overall record on counterterrorism.
President Obama disputed the Republican claims during a February interview with Fox News, saying his administration did not try to “hide the ball” regarding the attacks, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee declined to comment Tuesday. However, one of his aides told The Times that the question of how firmly Mr. Morell pushed the assessment of his station chief in Libya to senior officials at the White House and State Department is “clearly” what Mr. Rogers is “trying to get resolved.”
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Georgia Republican and a member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Times that “I think there’s several important questions that need to be answered.”
“There was a video conference that Morell had with the deputy chief of station and others, and then evidently there were different conversations being had, and [White House spokesman] Jay Carney said that there was a meeting at the White House,” Mr. Westmoreland said. “That’s a bunch of stuff going on and we need to find out who all was involved in those conversations and what the point of the video conference was.”
“There’s a lot of questions [Morell] needs to answer,” he added. “Any time you’ve got that level of people video conferencing and meeting at the White House and holding telephone conversations, somebody’s scrambling over something.”