Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers at a closed-door briefing Friday the agency believed the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack from the beginning.
Democrats and Republicans were at odds, however, over how Petraeus’s testimony helped explain the administration’s shifting story on the attack.
According to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Petraeus indicated the talking points used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in several cable television appearances days after the assault — where she said the Benghazi attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest — were different from the ones prepared by the CIA.
But Senate Democrats said the CIA had signed off on Rice’s unclassified talking points and they suggested the discrepancy was due to the difference between classified and unclassified intelligence at the time.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) read aloud Rice's talking points to reporters after the briefing, as Feinstein told reporters she thought critics were trying to “assassinate her character.”
“The key is they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage. And I don’t think she should be pilloried for this,” Feinstein said. “She did what I would have done or anyone else would have done who was going on a weekend show.”
King said Petraeus suggested that someone inside the administration had shifted the talking points prepared by the intelligence community.
“He said [the talking points] went through a long process that involved many agencies, including the Department of Justice and the State Department, and no one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points,” King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told reporters after Petraeus testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Friday.
“The original talking points prepared by the CIA were different from the ones that were finally put out. General Petraeus’s testimony today was that — from the start — this was a terrorist attack, there were terrorists involved from the start.”
Petraeus is testifying before both the House and Senate Intelligence committees just one week after his shocking resignation over an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
King acknowledged there was a certain amount of awkwardness in the hearing: "I've known him for 9 years now. I actually urged to run for president a few years ago."
The committees did not delve into the circumstances surrounding the resignation at Friday’s hearing, although Petraeus touched on it during his opening statement, lawmakers said.
Petraeus’s testimony Friday came after both committees held two lengthy hearings with senior intelligence officials on the Benghazi attacks Thursday. Feinstein said her committee has already planned another two briefings and a public hearing.
Republicans have hammered Rice over her comments, questioning whether the administration initially pushed that narrative for political purposes in an effort to not appear weak on foreign policy and security issues ahead of the election.
Several Democrats said it was unfair to criticize Rice, pushing back against calls from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that they would do everything in their power to block her confirmation if she was nominated as Secretary of State.
"Criticisms of her are completely unwarranted," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). He suggested Rice might not have been able to talk about some of the talking points emphasizing links between the attack and terrorist groups because they were classified.
McCain did not address Rice’s comments in his statement after the Petraeus hearing, and did not take questions.
Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the questions about Rice and the administration’s talking points had yet to be resolved.
“There were some changes made to those talking points, and there’s still issues about those talking points that are yet to be resolved,” Chambliss said. “There was no question in the mind of anybody that this was an act of terrorism from the get go.”
House Intelligence panel member Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) acknowledged that there were a number of possible motives being floated for the attack in the immediate days after. But he questioned why the administration publicly pushed the idea that the attack spun out of a protest against a crude anti-Islam film, portions of which were circulating on the Internet and had caused violent demonstrations in other Islamic nations.
“The CIA has always been square with us,” said Rooney in an interview with The Hill after the hearing with Petraeus.
“People took different impressions from Petraeus’s first briefing certainly. I just don’t understand why Susan Rice didn’t come out after the attack and just say, ‘There are a lot of moving parts here. We don’t want to say what happened until we’re absolutely sure.’
“But they focused on that video, and that’s what bothers me. And I don’t know why they did that.”
Petraeus himself appeared to indicate at earlier testimony to the Senate Intelligence panel in September — just days after the attack — that intelligence suggested it resulted from a protest. The former director has not made public comments about the attack, but senators interviewed after that closed-door hearing said they did not hear it was a terrorist attack.
King said that he “had a very different recollection” from what Petraeus said in September compared to Friday.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said Petraeus told lawmakers on Friday that the CIA felt in the first 24 hours that the attack was the result of a protest over the anti-Islamic YouTube video.
But Ruppersberger also said that the CIA felt it was a terrorist attack from the beginning, because there were extremists and some al Qaeda affiliates involved. "It’s all about your perception and the information that you receive," Ruppersberger told reporters.
“In the initial situation, this is what they understood. But then the investigation evolves.”
—This story was last updated at 12:07 p.m.