CIA Fires Back at Congress’s Benghazi Theories

A former top agency official says he didn’t let politics influence his editing of now-controversial talking points.

This photo taken on September 11, 2012 shows a vehicle and surrounding buildings smoldering after they were set on fire inside the US mission compound in Benghazi.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
April 2, 2014, 10:38 a.m.

House mem­bers on Wed­nes­day grilled a former CIA of­fi­cial over al­leg­a­tions of a cov­er-up in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mes­saging after the Sept. 11, 2012, at­tack in Benghazi.

Mi­chael Mo­rell, the deputy dir­ect­or of the agency at the time, stressed that polit­ics or an al­leged at­tempt to mis­lead Con­gress and the pub­lic didn’t in­flu­ence his edit­ing of talk­ing points or his view of the CIA’s ana­lys­is.

“Let me em­phas­ize again: There is no truth to the al­leg­a­tions that the CIA or I ‘cooked the books’ with re­gard to what happened in Benghazi and then tried to cov­er this up after the fact,” he said in writ­ten testi­mony, adding in a House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee hear­ing that “I nev­er al­lowed polit­ics to in­flu­ence what I said.”

Law­makers dug in­to why ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said pub­licly — and in un­clas­si­fied talk­ing points giv­en to con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees — in the days after the at­tack that it sprang from a spon­tan­eous protest. CIA ana­lysts later con­cluded that it was a de­lib­er­ate, co­ordin­ated ter­ror­ist at­tack.

Mem­bers poin­ted to emails from the CIA’s sta­tion chief in Benghazi that showed he be­lieved as early as Sept. 15 that there had not been a protest. Law­makers on Wed­nes­day cri­ti­cized Mo­rell for not in­clud­ing the sta­tion chief’s con­cerns in the clas­si­fied in­ter­agency doc­u­ments.

Mo­rell said the CIA’s ana­lysts, who were col­lect­ing in­form­a­tion from in­tel­li­gence and press re­ports, dis­agreed with the sta­tion chief’s as­sess­ment. Mo­rell did not be­lieve at the time that the sta­tion chief’s reas­ons for dis­agree­ing with the ana­lyst’s find­ings were sub­stant­ive enough. Ana­lysts re­vised their find­ings on Sept. 22 to say that they now be­lieved based on new in­form­a­tion that there wasn’t a protest.

Mo­rell also de­leted ref­er­ences to Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ism in the un­clas­si­fied talk­ing points, which were also used by then-U.N. Rep­res­ent­at­ive Susan Rice on the Sunday shows. Mo­rell said that while Rice had ac­cess to the body of in­tel­li­gence work done up to that point, the sta­tion chief’s con­cerns would not have been in­cluded, be­cause that doc­u­ment wasn’t shared out­side of the CIA.

But he ad­ded that he did give a “heads up” at a Depu­ties Com­mit­tee meet­ing — which in­cluded par­ti­cipants from a hand­ful of agen­cies — that the sta­tion chief dis­agreed with the as­sess­ment that there was a protest.

The CIA also re­moved ref­er­ences to al-Qaida from the talk­ing points. Mo­rell said that he also re­moved lan­guage that the agency had pre­vi­ously warned about se­cur­ity threats in Libya to avoid hav­ing the CIA ap­pear as if it were try­ing to ex­on­er­ate it­self in the at­tack.

“What I’m puzzled by as you look at those ed­its that you made, you take out most of the words that are in the talk­ing points,” Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mac Thorn­berry of Texas said. “”¦ To me it seems like you’re more in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing the State De­part­ment than the State De­part­ment is. You are more in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing the FBI than the FBI is.”¦ That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Mo­rell ad­mit­ted that his ed­its were not the CIA’s best work, adding that “there are things we should have done dif­fer­ently, there are areas where the CIA’s per­form­ance, and my own per­form­ance, could have been bet­ter.”

But Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers cast doubt on his testi­mony, sug­gest­ing that he made ed­its to pro­tect the White House. GOP Rep. Dev­in Nunes of Cali­for­nia, who is run­ning to be the next com­mit­tee chair­man, said, “The prob­lem is you’ve got all these con­flict­ing stor­ies.”

And Rep. Peter King, a New York Re­pub­lic­an who is also in­ter­ested in the com­mit­tee chair­man­hip, ad­ded: “We have to be­lieve an aw­ful lot of cir­cum­stances to be­lieve your ver­sion with to­tal­ity.”

But com­mit­tee Demo­crats tried to steer the hear­ing to­ward fo­cus­ing on the need to cap­ture the mil­it­ants be­hind the at­tacks.

“We have only found evid­ence that the talk­ing points were ed­ited to en­sure ac­cur­acy, to check clas­si­fic­a­tion, and to safe­guard the in­vest­ig­a­tion and even­tu­al pro­sec­u­tion — which has to be our ul­ti­mate goal: find­ing and hold­ing ac­count­able those who com­mit­ted this ter­rible act,” said Rep. Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger, D-Md.

Mul­tiple com­mit­tee re­ports, in­clud­ing one by the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, have largely blamed the White House and the State De­part­ment for fail­ing to re­spond to in­creas­ing se­cur­ity risks with­in Libya lead­ing up to the 2012 at­tack which left four Amer­ic­ans dead.

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