The CIA’s former deputy director disclosed Wednesday that Obama administration officials were alerted the day before they went on national television that a key tenet of their original Benghazi storyline might be inaccurate. But he did not explain why the administration continued to cling to its narrative even after U.S. intelligence debunked reports that the deadly attack was born out of a protest over an anti-Islam video.
In often testy exchanges with Republicans who accused him of a cover-up, Michael Morell flatly denied that he “inappropriately altered and influenced” the infamous Benghazi talking points to downplay the role of terrorism in the attacks.
But he acknowledged overruling the wishes of his boss at the time, CIA Director David H. Petraeus, by excising from the talking points information that the CIA had warned about possible al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Libya before the Benghazi tragedy unfolded on Sept. 11, 2012, killing ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“I saw the language as self-serving and defensive on the agency’s part,” Mr. Morell replied to skeptical lawmakers. “Here was a tragic event, and we were saying, ‘We told you so.’ This was wrong, in my view, and would have been seen as an attempt to make the CIA look good and shift any possible blame for failing to see the risk of an attack from the agency to the State Department.”
He also said references to al Qaeda were removed from the talking points because of concern at the CIA that leaving them in the public narrative could have jeopardized classified sources.
“The only way we knew that anybody who was involved in that attack that night was associated with al Qaeda was from classified sources,” he said. “To leave it in, the [CIA] director would have had to declassify that information.”
The 33-year veteran of the CIA, who served Democratic and Republican presidents, provided the first concrete timeline of when the CIA began to understand that the original reports were wrong.
He testified that the agency first learned Sept. 14 that there appeared to be no protest on the ground from a report from its officers in Libya, and that a day later the CIA’s station chief sent an email reinforcing that the attack was not preceded by a protest.
Mr. Morell said he shared that information with White House officials, including Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, during a meeting on Sept. 15, 2012, but added that he did not edit the protest information from draft talking points because CIA analysts had not definitively ruled out the protest.
“The analysts had an evidentiary basis to make the judgment that there was a protest ongoing at the time of the attack,” he testified. “Altogether, there were roughly a dozen or so reports indicating that this was the case.”
The next day, Sept. 16, U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice went on Sunday talk shows with the account that the attack was believed to have been started by protests over an American made anti-Islam video.
Mr. Morell testified that he did not know the talking points he had worked on would be used by Ms. Rice for the purpose of a public account on TV.
Nonetheless, by Sept. 18, 2012, two days after Ms. Rice’s appearance, the CIA received a report from the Libyan government that security footage outside the Benghazi complex showed no protest before the attack. U.S. officials reviewed the footage over the next few days and by Sept. 22, the intelligence community revised its analysis and formally declared the attack was related to terrorism and was not proceeded by a protest over the anti-Islam video, Mr. Morell said.
Despite that formal finding of the intelligence community, Obama administration officials continued for weeks afterward to use various versions of the protest or video as part of the Benghazi storyline. A full three days after the U.S. intelligence community officials debunked the protest over the video, President Obama appeared to link the attack to the video in a speech he gave Sept. 26, 2012, at the United Nations.
During the speech, he did not describe the attack as the work of terrorists. “And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy,” Mr. Obama declared.
Mr. Morell insisted Wednesday that neither he nor anyone else at the CIA attempted to mislead the public or craft the talking points for political purposes.
“These allegations accuse me of taking these actions for the political benefit of President Obama and then [former] Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton,” Mr. Morell said during a rare open session of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “These allegations are false.”
Shifting blame to White House
While several of the committee’s Republicans appeared downright dissatisfied with explanations that Mr. Morell provided, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and intelligence committee chairman, appeared eager early in the hearing to shift blame away from the CIA and toward the White House.
“I must conclude that the White House used your talking points to perpetrate its own misguided political agenda,” Mr. Rogers said. “I believe that the White House wanted America to believe that al Qaeda was on the run, thus they needed the attacks to be in response to anti-Islamic video, and so the White House used your talking points to say so.
“But we knew that al Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist organizations and militia groups participated in the attacks — officers on the ground knew that there was no protest,” he said. “I don’t believe the administration learned the lessons of this failure. Ambassador Rice stated on Feb. 23rd of this year that she has no regrets; she still believes the talking points represented the ‘best information that we had at the time.’ But she is wrong. The White House wants to ignore reality and perpetuate the fallacy that al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are on the verge of defeat.
“Here is why this issue is important,” he added. “Al Qaeda is growing and planning operations against Americans from their safe havens in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Yet the administration continues to talk and act as if al Qaeda is on the run. They foolishly focus on the al Qaeda ‘core.’ But it makes no difference whether terrorists who target Americans are directed by al Qaeda in Pakistan or al Qaeda in Yemen.”
Disputes over the Benghazi talking points have long been at the center of political fireworks hanging over an exhaustive series of congressional probes into the attacks that killed the four Americans.
Despite the detailed nature of Mr. Rogers’ remarks, several of the committee’s Democrats hurled veiled accusations at Republicans, asserting that the GOP side of the committee had turned what began as a fact-based probe of Benghazi’s aftermath into a partisan smear campaign against the Obama administration.
Republicans argued that the heart of the matter rests on questions of why senior CIA and White House officials in Washington ignored a pointed assertion by the agency’s chief of station in Libya that there had been no protest and — more specifically — why those assertions were not included in talking points given to Ms. Rice.
Mr. Morell said he shared the station chief’s assertion with White House officials, including Mr. McDonough, during a Sept. 15 secure video conference call one day before Mrs. Rice went on the talk shows. But, Mr. Morell claimed, the assertion was not used in the talking points because it was simply outmatched by other streams of intelligence weighed from Sept. 11 to Sept. 16 by the CIA analysts who crafted the points.
“These included press accounts — including public statements by the Libyan government and by extremists,” he said. “And they included intelligence reports from CIA, the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense.”
Mr. Morell pressed back against the notion that he or anyone else had personally suppressed the station chief’s assertion. “This allegation flows from an email sent by our Chief of Station (COS) in Tripoli to my staff — and to a number of other officials at CIA — on the morning of 15 September,” Mr. Morell said as part of prepared remarks submitted to the committee. “Near the end of the email was a reference to the COS’s assessment that the Benghazi attack was ‘not/not an escalation of protests.’”
He said that while the assessment “jumped out” at him, it was based on “local press reports” that had said there was no protest. He told lawmakers that “this was not compelling because there were other press reports saying that there was a protest.”
The email also was based on a claim that CIA security officers who had responded to the call for help from the State Department facility from a separate CIA annex in Benghazi on the night of the attacks did not see a protest when they arrived, Mr. Morell said. “Again,” he told lawmakers, “this was not compelling because these officers did not arrive until almost an hour after the attack started and the protesters could have dispersed by them.”
“Also,” he said, “in my mind at the time, was the fact that Tripoli Station — just the day before — disseminated an intelligence report indicating that there was a protest.”
Several Republicans on the intelligence committee were skeptical. Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland of Georgia took issue with the notion that analysts at CIA headquarters had valued news reports above the word of the agency’s station chief in Libya.
Mr. Westmoreland also voiced concern with Mr. Morell’s claim that CIA officials responding to the attack could not be trusted because they arrived an hour after the attack began. If there had been a protest, the congressman said, the officials would have seen evidence of it. “When you see those demonstrations, they don’t just last for 30 minutes and then everybody goes home,” he said. “You would see people meandering around doing things.”
Instead, Mr. Westmoreland said, “What they saw was the end of an RPG and heavy machine guns.”
“What the analysts thought,” responded Mr. Morell, “was that if there was a protest, which they believed, outside of the State Department facility and the attack starts — that most likely that protest is going to break up and dissipate. That’s what they thought, and that is not an unreasonable thing to think.”
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, took issue with Mr. Morell’s claim that a stream of classified intelligence from the National Security Agency could have contributed to the conclusion by CIA analysts that there had been no protest. It was “misleading,” he said, for Mr. Morell to bring up such intelligence “when those who are familiar — I believe familiar — with the full context of that know why it should not be taken seriously.”
Mr. King also accused Mr. Morell of misleading lawmakers at a November 2012 hearing, asserting that because Mr. Morell didn’t speak up in response to questions from lawmakers about the talking points at the time, committee members left the hearing without “the faintest idea” that he had even been involved in crafting the points.
It was not until months later, when the White House — under pressure from Republicans — released internal emails about the talking points that “we found out how directly involved you were,” Mr. King said. “At best, it’s misleading by omission, what you did that day and continue to do afterwards, or at worst, lying by omission.”
Some Democrats on the committee came to Mr. Morell’s defense. “I believe what you are telling us today,” said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky of Illinois.
“Throughout all of this, I have not seen any evidence that anyone lied or intentionally misled the American people about the attack,” she said. “I believe we have shifted from legitimate fact-based oversight into a partisan smear campaign.”
“These never-ending Benghazi hearings, quite frankly, have become a very costly distraction and, in my opinion, far too partisan,” said Rep. James R. Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat. “They are no longer about finding and fixing problems; instead, they have very needlessly consumed thousands of man hours and millions of taxpayer dollars. And I think that that is very disappointing.”
But Mr. Rogers pressed for more clarity from Mr. Morell on the extent to which senior Obama administration officials, who were also aware of the CIA Libya station chief’s assertion, never warned Ms. Rice about it before sending her on national television to push a contrary view of what happened in Benghazi.
Specifically, Mr. Rogers asked whether Ms. Rice would have had access to Sept. 15 email that the station chief had written to his superiors at CIA headquarters.
“No,” responded Mr. Morell. “Because that wasn’t disseminated outside the CIA.”