Senior Republican members of Congress confirmed Sunday that the Obama administration changed CIA guidance to senior officials that had identified the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi as an al Qaeda attack.
“The intelligence community had it right, and they had it right early,” said chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.).
The CIA “talking points” on Benghazi initially identified the attackers as al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked terrorists but senior administration officials removed the reference, Rogers said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Meanwhile, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president on Saturday that the White House made only minor changes in the first comments by a White House official on the Benghazi security scandal.
“We were provided with points by the intelligence community that represented their assessment," Rhodes said on Air Force One en route to Asia. "The only edit made by the White House was the factual edit about how to refer to the facility.”
Rhodes insisted that the word “consulate” was changed to “diplomatic facility” to reflect the fact that the compound was not involved in traditional consular activities.
“Other than that, we were guided by the points that were provided by the intelligence community,” he said. “So I can’t speak to any other edits that may have been made.”
Rogers said the talking points were reviewed by a “deputies committee” of senior officials that is “populated by appointees from the administration. That's where the narrative changed.”
Rogers was commenting on closed-door testimony Friday by former CIA Director David Petraeus who revealed the talking points were changed, apparently to play down the terrorist connection. Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), an intelligence committee member, first disclosed this information shortly after the Petraeus hearing.
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in five Sunday talk show interviews used the altered talking points that emphasized falsely that the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video.
The attack resulted in the death of four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) also said on Fox News Sunday that Petraeus said the initial talking points were altered and that senior intelligence and security officials did not know who was behind the changes.
“At the hearing we had on Thursday and Friday, we had every leader of the intelligence community there, including folks from the State Department, the FBI, everybody there was asked, do you know who made these changes? And nobody knew,” Chambliss said.
“The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House. I don't know whether what they said yesterday is exactly right or not. But, what I do know is that every member of the intelligence community says that references to al Qaeda were removed by somebody and they don't know who. And references to attacks versus demonstrations were removed by somebody.”
Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) disagreed with Rogers and said allegations the White House changed the talking points were false. “So there was only one thing that was changed and I've checked into this, I believe it to be absolute fact and that was the word ‘consulate’ was changed to ‘mission,’” she said on the same program.
“That's the only change that anyone in the White House made and I have checked this out,” she said.
But Rogers, a former FBI agent, insisted the White House was behind the change.
“What was said and as I conclude the course of that investigation was that at some point those so-called talking points, in other words, the narrative of how we would call this event, went up to what's called the ‘deputies' meeting,” he said. “When asked, there was no one in the professional intelligence community could tell us who changed what. So there goes the disconnect. So the intelligence community said this was a terrorist act.”
Rogers’ comments also bolster statements made by U.S. intelligence officials to the Free Beacon in early October that intelligence indicating an al Qaeda link to the attack was deliberately cut out by senior administration officials.
One intelligence official said the reason for the omission of the information on al Qaeda was that the intelligence contradicted President Barack Obama’s statement at the Democratic National Convention weeks earlier that al Qaeda was “on the path to defeat.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) agreed on Sunday, saying on Meet the Press that he believes the intelligence indicating an al Qaeda link to the Benghazi attack was removed for political reasons.
“I think one of the reasons that Susan Rice told the story she did, if the truth came out a few weeks before the election that our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been overrun by an al Qaeda-sponsored or -affiliated militia, that destroys the narrative we've been hearing for months that al Qaeda has been dismantled, bin Laden's dead, we're safer,” Graham said on Meet the Press.
“And Susan Rice just did not say it was the results of a mob spawned by a video like Cairo,” he said. “She actually said on Face the Nation, I want to remind the American people, this president promised to go after bin Laden, refocus on al Qaeda. He got bin Laden, al Qaeda's been dismantled, and the truth of the matter is nothing could have been further from the truth, and the story she told reinforced a political narrative helpful to the president.”
Asked if there was a “cover up” on Benghazi, Rogers said, “Well, this is what I know: I know the narrative was wrong, and the intelligence was right. Now, getting between here and there, I think you have to be careful about making those accusations. I think you should have to prove it. As an old FBI agent, you should prove it first.”
Rogers defended the intelligence assessment from the time of the attack as identifying the strike as “an act of terrorism.”
“There were some policy decisions made based on the narrative that was not consistent with the intelligence that we had,” he said. “That's my concern and we need to say hey, we need to figure out how that happened and let's make sure this doesn't happen again.”
Feinstein said she did not believe there was a cover up.
The Benghazi attack received little attention by major news media outlets prior to Nov. 6. The New York Times carried few stories about the attack and devoted few resources to covering the story in what critics say was an apparent effort to play down a major security failure by the Obama administration.
Rogers said the failure to provide adequate protection for diplomats and intelligence personnel in Benghazi was “a catastrophic failure in recognizing that threat posture clearly on that day.”
On the sex scandal that led to Petreaus’ resignation and has also ensnared the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen, Rogers said Petraeus “did the right thing” in stepping down.
A new CIA officer that failed to disclose an extramarital affair would be fired, he said. “Why? Because it's a counterintelligence threat to someone who has very sensitive and classified information,” Rogers said.
Rogers also said he is “not sure” Obama was not informed of the FBI investigation of Petraeus before the Nov. 6 election. The president insisted he did not know until after the election.
Rogers said that the issue needs to be investigated.
Feinstein said she believed the president was kept out of the loop on the Petraeus probe which began with an investigation of cyber harassment of Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.
“I spoke to the attorney general,” she said. “He explained the process that the FBI carried out and there's a reason for that. And the reason for not disclosing it [to the president] is so that there is no manipulation; that there is an ability to move ahead without any political weighing in on any side.”