Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell on Wednesday denied the administration tried to mislead Congress about whether the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a terrorist attack.
“We did not deliberately down play the role of terrorists in the Benghazi attack in our analysis or in the talking points,” said Morell, a key figure in interagency discussions after the attack, which left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
The administration has come under fierce criticism over the attacks from congressional Republicans, who have argued the administration deliberately played down the role of terrorism in the attack because it would have hurt President Obama’s reelection effort.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in several television interviews days after the attack said the assault spun from a protest.
Since then, officials have acknowledged that there was no protest and that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved in the attack.
Morell was involved in the crafting of Rice’s talking points, which took center stage at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Unfortunately, the talking points did not reflect the best information available. They did not mention that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved in the attacks, though briefings and intelligence reports assessed they were involved,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee.
Morell disputed Rogers’s assertion, saying that the talking points were based on the information the CIA had at the time.
He acknowledged a CIA station chief had told him there was no evidence of a protest and that al Qaeda attackers were possibly involved. But he said other information from CIA analysts suggested there had been protests.
Morell said he sought to reconcile the two views, but ultimately concluded at that time that there was a protest.
“I believed what my analysts said, that there was a protest,” said Morell. “I also believed it to be a terrorist attack ... I believed both of those at the same time.”
Morell said that although he told CIA colleagues, including then-CIA Director David Petraeus, there was a discrepancy between his analysts and the station chief, he did not disseminate that information outside the CIA, saying that the chief’s analysis was “important, but not determinative.”
“The information came in pieces over time,” Morell told the committee.
Morell also said he did not know the talking points were going to be used by Rice, and that one lesson the CIA has learned in the aftermath of the incident is that “we should not be involved in writing talking points for the media.”
Morell said he was not the one that took out any mention of al Qaeda from the talking points that Rice used.
“The group of officers from our office of congressional affairs and from our office of public affairs took it out,” said Morell. “I did not take it out. I did not know it was in there when I look at the talking points.”
He said taking it out turned out to “be the right thing to do” because otherwise the CIA would have had to reveal classified sources of intelligence.
“The only way we knew that anybody who was involved in that attack that night was associated with al Qaeda was from classified sources and so to leave it in, the director would have had to declassify that information,” he said.
After the hearing, Rogers said the committee would review the testimony given. He said Morell’s testimony was helpful in filling in gaps, but that it was troubling that the CIA knew that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved.
“What presents itself as the 800-lb. gorilla in the room is that over the period of weeks following the event, the CIA had the right information, including the fact that Al Qaeda was alive and well around the world, and yet the administration was on a very different narrative,” he said.
Rogers said a new report on Benghazi would be out later this month, following a full review of the testimony.