Former CIA director David Petraeus told the US Congress on Friday that he and the spy agency had sought to make clear from the outset that September’s deadly attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, involved an al-Qaeda affiliate, lawmakers said.
Petraeus told lawmakers that “there were extremists in the group” that launched the attack on the diplomatic mission, describing them as affiliates of al-Qaeda and other groups, said US Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
“The fact is that he clarified it,” Ruppersberger said.
Petraeus appeared behind closed doors before the House and Senate intelligence panels the week after quitting his CIA post because of an extramarital affair. He made no public remarks.
Another lawmaker, Republican US Representative Peter King, said Petraeus’ account in the closed-door session differed from the assessment the former CIA director gave to Congress two months ago, just days after the Sept. 11 attack that killed then-US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“He also stated that he thought all along he made it clear that there were significant terrorist involvement, and that is not my recollection of what he told us on Sept. 14,” King said.
Petraeus admitted last week to an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Lawmakers said a somber Petraeus told them his resignation had nothing to do with issues related to Benghazi or any reluctance to testify before Congress.
The assault on the US mission and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi has turned into a flash point between Democratic US President Barack Obama and Republicans.
Republicans accuse the White House, and in particular, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, of misleading the public just after the attack by suggesting the assault was a spontaneous act instead of a planned terrorist operation. The Obama administration denies misleading anyone and says it discussed information about the Benghazi tragedy as it came in.
Some Republicans have suggested the administration initially wanted to avoid the idea that it had failed to prevent a terrorist attack, which might have dampened the president’s re-election chances on Nov. 6. Obama, who won a second term, has denied that implication.
King said that unclassified talking points about the attack prepared by the CIA for use by lawmakers, and apparently relied on by Rice, originally pointed specifically to al-Qaeda involvement, but were edited before being cleared for use.
“The original talking points were much more specific about al-Qaeda involvement and the final ones just said: ‘indications of extremists,’” King said.
He quoted Petraeus as saying that officials did not realize the significance of the change at the time, “and that for an unclassified statement, this was acceptable.”
Petraeus, a retired US Army four-star general, slipped in and out of the closed sessions unseen by a swarm of media. Capitol police cleared journalists and others from hallways where the former CIA director might have been spotted.
Although he has left the CIA, Petraeus was asked to testify about Benghazi in part because he had gone to Libya before his resignation to interview people about what happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
Democratic lawmakers emerging from the sessions with Petraeus said it was clear Rice had been speaking from the talking points that were approved by the US intelligence community when she discussed the Benghazi attack.
In five Sunday talk-show appearances on Sept. 16, Rice said the assault was prompted by an anti-Muslim video and then developed into a more violent act, but she also told CBS’ Face the Nation that day that it was “clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence.”
US Senator Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee’s top Republican, told reporters the problem with Rice’s talk show appearances was that she did not stick with the talking points she was given on the Benghazi attack.
“She knew at that point in time that al-Qaeda was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of ambassador Stevens,” he said.