WASHINGTON – The CIA’s former deputy director said Wednesday that he deleted references to terrorism warnings from widely disputed talking points on the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, to avoid the spy agency’s gloating at the expense of the State Department.
Michael J. 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 the U.S. diplomatic mission.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in two attacks over a chaotic period of several hours. Multiple independent and congressional investigations have faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the mission.
Morell, a 33-year veteran of the agency who has served six presidents, both Republican and Democratic, insisted that politics had no bearing on the revisions to the talking points and said he was under no pressure to protect either President 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 former CIA official. The intelligence community’s talking points, compiled for members of Congress, suggested that the Benghazi 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 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 E. Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a series of appearances on Sunday talk shows. 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 that 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.
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.