The CIA’s former deputy director said Wednesday he deleted references to terrorism warnings from widely disputed talking points on the deadly 2012 Benghazi attack to avoid the spy agency’s gloating at the expense of the State Department.
Mike Morell faced more than three hours of questioning from the House Intelligence committee in a rare open session that examined who changed the talking points, and why, in the politically-charged aftermath of the deadly Sept. 11 assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in two separate attacks over a chaotic period of several hours. Multiple independent and congressional investigations have largely faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the mission.
Morell, a 33-year veteran of the agency who has served six Republican and Democratic presidents, insisted that politics had no bearing on the revisions to the talking points and said he was under no pressure to protect either President Barack Obama or then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did. Never,” he said.
The White House, wrapped up in a fierce presidential campaign, made only minor editorial changes to the talking points, according to the onetime CIA official.
The intelligence community’s talking points, compiled for members of Congress, suggested the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests in Cairo and elsewhere over an anti-Islamic video rather than an assault by extremists.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of trying to mislead the American people about an act of terrorism in the final weeks before the November election.
Morell deleted references to extremist threats linked to al-Qaida in versions of the talking points that were used by Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a series of Sunday talk show appearances. Morell said his actions were driven by the information provided by intelligence community analysts and the Defense Department.
He said the CIA knew that some of the individuals involved in the attack were al-Qaida from classified sources, information that couldn’t be included unless it was declassified. The talking points were provided to members of the committee for dissemination to the American people.
Morell said he removed references to the warnings based on previous CIA analysis. Otherwise, he said, the talking points would have been a “way for CIA to pound its chest and say ‘we warned,’ laying all the blame on the State Department.”
Morell said there would be plenty of time later on to figure out what went wrong.
In his prepared testimony, Morell said he was deeply troubled by allegations made by lawmakers and some in the media “that I inappropriately altered and influenced CIA’s classified analysis and its unclassified talking points about what happened in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 and that I covered up those actions.”
“These allegations accuse me of taking these actions for the political benefit of President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton. These allegations are false,” Morell said.
He said he and the agency could have done a better job, but he dismissed suggestions that the CIA “cooked the books” in the assessment of the attack.
Morell said he had no idea that Rice would use the talking points on the Sunday shows.
Morell described his step-by-step actions, from the first time he saw the talking points on Friday, the 14th, to his concerns about the inclusion of warning language. He said an intelligence analyst on the 13th had said the attack evolved spontaneously from a protest.
Morell said he believed his analyst that there had been a protest but he also believed it was a terrorist attack. He said he never considered them mutually exclusive.
A year and a half after the assault, multiple congressional committees and an independent review have investigated and reported on the attack. The hearing underscored that the assault remains highly politicized, with no signs of abating as Clinton is frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the committee, said the White House used the talking points “to perpetuate its own misguided political agenda.”
“The White House wants to ignore reality and perpetuate the fallacy that al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists are on the verge of defeat,” Rogers said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., complained about a “partisan smear campaign.”
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland bemoaned the fact that months after the attack, Congress was still discussing the talking points when the focus should be on catching those who carried out the attacks.
His voice rising, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., defended the congressional investigations, saying he wants retribution for the killing of four Americans and even wants to “pull the switch” on the attackers.
He angrily complained that the perpetrators have not been caught and remain at large “sipping mai-tais.”
Morell said he agreed with the congressman. “Nobody wants to bring these guys to justice more than I,” he said.