During closed-door hearings with the House and Senate intelligence committees today, David Petraeus reportedly told lawmakers that the CIA “talking points” issued after the attack — which supported the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative — were altered by other agencies prior to distribution. AP reports:
Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency took out the reference. …
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
The references to a terrorist attack, Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda were apparently replaced with the line: “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” That changes the entire meaning of the talking points, yet Democrats quickly downplayed the notion that the alteration was politically-motivated:
Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not made for political reasons during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
“The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “He completely debunked that idea.”
OK, but if Petraeus doesn’t even know which agency or official altered the talking points, how would he possibly know if the change was political or not? Here’s more from the Democrats:
Schiff said Petraeus said Rice’s comments in the television interviews “reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly.”
“There was an interagency process to draft it, not a political process,” Schiff said. “They came up with the best assessment without compromising classified information or source or methods. So changes were made to protect classified information.
It’s one thing to remove specific details to protect sensitive information. But the draft references to Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda are evidence that at the very least the administration strongly suspected these groups were involved from the beginning. In that case, why not just say the investigation into the terrorist attack was ongoing, and leave it at that until more information could be shared? It seems totally irrational to just chalk it up to a spontaneous demonstration, and then cling to that story for nearly two weeks.
Petraeus’s testimony is puzzling for other reasons. As director of the CIA, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t know who altered the talking points and wouldn’t look them over before distribution. This is the memo that sets much of the “official” narrative in the wake of an attack. And it’s not like these were minor edits. The gulf between calling it a terrorist attack involving al-Qaeda and calling it a spontaneous demonstration is enormous. As with much of what we learn about Benghazi, we’re left again with more questions than answers.