Former CIA director David Petraeus told lawmakers during private hearings today he believed all along that the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was terrorism, even though that wasn't how the Obama administration initially described it publicly, a committee member said.
Peter King, chair of the House committee on homeland security, and others on the committee spoke to reporters following the Friday morning closed-door hearing.
It was the retired general's first Capitol Hill testimony since resigning last week over an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, but he did not discuss that scandal during the hearing, except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure, according to another committee member.
Petraeus testified that the CIA's talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers it was removed by other federal agencies who made changes to the CIA's draft.
Petraeus also said references to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were replaced with the word "extremist" in the final draft, but he didn't know which agency did that, a congressional staffer said. Petraeus said he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points without asking for final review, to get them out quickly. The staffer wasn't authorized to discuss the hearing publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
King said Petraeus said he did not know who removed the reference to terrorism. King said to this day, it's still not clear how the final talking points emerged that were used by UN Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her to appear in a series of television interviews. Rice said it appeared the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.
Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents California's 29th district and is a committee member, told reporters that Petraeus said Rice's comments in the television interviews "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly."
He said Petraeus disputed Republican suggestions that the White House misled the public on what led to the violence in the midst of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
"There was an interagency process to draft it, not a political process," Schiff said after the hearing. "They came up with the best assessment without compromising classified information or source or methods. So changes were made to protect classified information.
"The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," Schiff said. "He completely debunked that idea."
But Republicans were still critical. Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate committee Petraeus also testified before on Friday, said Petraeus's testimony showed that "clearly the security measures were inadequate despite an overwhelming and growing amount of information that showed the area in Benghazi was dangerous, particularly on the night of September 11."
Petraeus's memory disputed
King said Petraeus had briefed the House committee on Sept. 14 and he did not recall Petraeus being so positive at that time that it was a terrorist attack.
"He thought all along that he made it clear there was terrorist involvement," King said. "That was not my recollection."
Lawmakers spent hours Thursday interviewing top intelligence and national security officials to try to determine what the intelligence community knew before, during and after the Benghazi attack. They viewed security video from the consulate and surveillance footage by an unarmed CIA Predator drone that showed events in real time.