Before the Obama administration gave an inaccurate narrative on national television that the Benghazi attacks grew from an anti-American protest, the CIA’s station chief in Libya pointedly told his superiors in Washington that no such demonstration occurred, documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials show.
The attack was “not an escalation of protests,” the station chief wrote to then-Deputy CIA Director Michael J. Morell in an email dated Sept. 15, 2012 — a full day before the White House sent Susan E. Rice to several Sunday talk shows to disseminate talking points claiming that the Benghazi attack began as a protest over an anti-Islam video.
That the talking points used by Mrs. Rice, who was then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, were written by a CIA that ignored the assessment by its own station chief inside Libya, has emerged as one of the major bones of contention in the more than two years of political fireworks and congressional investigations into the Benghazi attack.
What has never been made public is whether Mr. Morell and others at the CIA explicitly shared the station chief’s assessment with the White House or State Department.
Two former intelligence officials have told The Washington Times that this question likely will be answered at a Wednesday hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during which Mr. Morell is scheduled to give his public testimony.
Mr. Morell, who has since left the CIA, declined to comment on the matter Monday. He now works at Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington insider strategic communications firm.
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One former intelligence official close to Mr. Morell told The Times on the condition of anonymity that “the whole question of communication with the station chief will be addressed in his testimony.”
“We’re confident that it will clarify the situation in the minds of many who are asking,” the former official said.
Another former intelligence official told The Times that Mr. Morell did tell the White House and the State Department that the CIA station chief in Libya had concluded that there was no protest but senior Obama administration and CIA officials in Washington ignored the assessment.
Why they ignored it remains a topic of heated debate within the wider intelligence community.
A third source told The Times on Monday that Mr. Morell and other CIA officials in Washington were weighing several pieces of “conflicting information” streaming in about the Benghazi attack as the talking points were being crafted.
“That’s why they ultimately came up with the analysis that they did,” the source said. “The piece that was coming out of Tripoli was important, but it was one piece amid several streams of information.”
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One of the former intelligence officials said the Libya station chief’s assessment was being weighed against media reports from the ground in Benghazi that quoted witnesses as saying there had been a protest. Analysts at the CIA, the source said, also were weighing it against reporting by other intelligence divisions, including the National Security Agency.
“The chief of station in Tripoli who was 600 or 700 miles away from the attacks wouldn’t necessarily have the only view of what actually went on in Benghazi,” that former official said.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
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.
Documents since released by the White House show that administration officials boasted in internal emails at the time about Mr. Morell’s personal role in editing and rewriting the talking points.
“Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them,” an Obama administration official wrote Mrs. Rice on the morning of Sept. 15.
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.’”
“That’s a big deal,” the former official said. “It’s one thing to prepare something for lawmakers so they don’t make a mistake or say something inaccurate. It’s quite another matter to have that feed the administration’s then-current, definitive account of what had actually happened in Benghazi.”
“There are a lot of twists and turns in this,” added another former intelligence official. “A lot of it hangs on the fact that the agency thought they were crafting these talking points for Dutch Ruppersberger and Mike Rogers, not the White House.”