Lawmakers want to know who had a hand in creating the Obama administration's now-discredited "talking points" about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and why a final draft omitted the CIA's early conclusion that terrorists were involved.
The answers could explain why U.S. President Barack Obama and top aides, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, described the attack for days afterward as a protest against an anti-Islam video that spontaneously turned violent and why they played down any potential link to al-Qaeda, despite evidence to the contrary.
'We're going to find out who made changes in the original statement.' —Dianne Feinstein, head of Senate intelligence committee
Administration officials have defended the portrayal of the attack as relying on the best information available at the time that didn't compromise classified intelligence. Democrats say CIA and other intelligence officials signed off on the final talking points.
Republicans have alleged a Watergate-like coverup, accusing White House aides of hiding the terrorism link in the run-up to the Nov. 6 presidential election so voters wouldn't question Obama's claim that al-Qaeda's power had diminished.
"I know the narrative was wrong and the intelligence was right.... We're going to get to the bottom of how that happened," Mike Rogers, Representative for Michigan's eighth congressional district and chairman of the House intelligence committee, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate intelligence committee, said she doesn't believe the White House altered the document for political reasons. But she said she has lingering concerns about how the talking points were created when it was clear early on that the military-style assault wasn't a simple protest gone awry.
She said Congress has asked the administration to provide a detailed explanation.
"We gave the direction yesterday that this whole process is going to be checked out," Feinstein, a Democrat, said on Meet the Press. "We're going to find out who made changes in the original statement. Until we do, I really think it's unwarranted to make accusations."
Petraeus testified at last week's hearings
The inquiry comes on the heels of closed testimony to the committees last week by former CIA director David Petraeus. According to lawmakers who attended the meetings, Petraeus said the reference to al-Qaeda was removed from the final version of talking points, although he wasn't sure who or which federal agency deleted it.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the document, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the process publicly, said the al-Qaeda reference was deleted because the information came from classified sources and the links were tenuous. The administration also did not want to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages, that official said.
Feinstein confirmed that intelligence officials told her in closed briefings that they were reluctant to name any particular terrorist group without being certain. But, she added, it was clear very soon after the attack that the violence didn't stem from a political demonstration.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters travelling with the president to Asia that any substantive edits to the talking points would have come from intelligence agencies themselves. The only change the White House made, he said, was to correct a reference to the facility in Benghazi as a "diplomatic facility," instead of a "consulate."
"Other than that, we were guided by the points that were provided by the intelligence community. So I can't speak to any other edits that may have been made," he said.