The CIA’s former deputy director disclosed Wednesday that Obama administration officials were alerted the day before they went on national television that a key tenet of their original Benghazi storyline might be inaccurate. But he did not explain why the administration continued to cling to its narrative even after U.S. intelligence debunked reports that the deadly attack was born out of a protest over an anti-Islam video.
In often testy exchanges with Republicans who accused him of a cover-up, Michael Morell flatly denied that he “inappropriately altered and influenced” the infamous Benghazi talking points to downplay the role of terrorism in the attacks.
But he acknowledged overruling the wishes of his boss at the time, CIA Director David H. Petraeus, by excising from the talking points information that the CIA had warned about possible al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Libya before the Benghazi tragedy unfolded on Sept. 11, 2012, killing ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“I saw the language as self-serving and defensive on the agency’s part,” Mr. Morell replied to skeptical lawmakers. “Here was a tragic event, and we were saying, ‘We told you so.’ This was wrong, in my view, and would have been seen as an attempt to make the CIA look good and shift any possible blame for failing to see the risk of an attack from the agency to the State Department.”
He also said references to al Qaeda were removed from the talking points because of concern at the CIA that leaving them in the public narrative could have jeopardized classified sources.
“The only way we knew that anybody who was involved in that attack that night was associated with al Qaeda was from classified sources,” he said. “To leave it in, the [CIA] director would have had to declassify that information.”
The 33-year veteran of the CIA, who served Democratic and Republican presidents, provided the first concrete timeline of when the CIA began to understand that the original reports were wrong.
He testified that the agency first learned Sept. 14 that there appeared to be no protest on the ground from a report from its officers in Libya, and that a day later the CIA’s station chief sent an email reinforcing that the attack was not preceded by a protest.
Mr. Morell said he shared that information with White House officials, including Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, during a meeting on Sept. 15, 2012, but added that he did not edit the protest information from draft talking points because CIA analysts had not definitively ruled out the protest.
“The analysts had an evidentiary basis to make the judgment that there was a protest ongoing at the time of the attack,” he testified. “Altogether, there were roughly a dozen or so reports indicating that this was the case.”
The next day, Sept. 16, U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice went on Sunday talk shows with the account that the attack was believed to have been started by protests over an American made anti-Islam video.
Mr. Morell testified that he did not know the talking points he had worked on would be used by Ms. Rice for the purpose of a public account on TV.
Nonetheless, by Sept. 18, 2012, two days after Ms. Rice’s appearance, the CIA received a report from the Libyan government that security footage outside the Benghazi complex showed no protest before the attack. U.S. officials reviewed the footage over the next few days and by Sept. 22, the intelligence community revised its analysis and formally declared the attack was related to terrorism and was not proceeded by a protest over the anti-Islam video, Mr. Morell said.
Despite that formal finding of the intelligence community, Obama administration officials continued for weeks afterward to use various versions of the protest or video as part of the Benghazi storyline. A full three days after the U.S. intelligence community officials debunked the protest over the video, President Obama appeared to link the attack to the video in a speech he gave Sept. 26, 2012, at the United Nations.
During the speech, he did not describe the attack as the work of terrorists. “And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy,” Mr. Obama declared.
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