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Republicans said Friday after closed-door House and Senate Intelligence Committee meetings with David H. Petraeus that CIA talking points on the Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack mentioning terrorist connections were altered to delete those references, raising questions of politicization.
But Democrats countered that there is a big difference between classified information and unclassified talking points, and that Petraeus, the former CIA director who recently resigned over an extramarital affair, backed the accounts given by other Obama administration officials about the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attack.
Peter T. King, R-N.Y., a member of the House Intelligence panel and chairman of the Homeland Security panel, said Petraeus’ account Friday differed from King’s own recollection of Petraeus’ earlier accounts to lawmakers.
Republicans said there was particular confusion over a set of talking points on Benghazi that the administration provided to lawmakers Sept. 14.
“It’s still not clear how the talking points emerged,” King said. “It went through a long process that includes many agencies, the Department of Justice, the State Department, and no one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points. The original talking points from the CIA are different from the ones that were finally put out.”
King added, “His testimony today was that from the start he told us this was a terrorist attack. I told him I had a very different recollection of that.”
Petraeus told lawmakers he was convinced from the start that al-Qaida affiliates were involved, but King said that the early information the administration gave to lawmakers was more circumspect on that point. He said he wanted to find out whether the White House had any hand in altering the earlier draft of CIA talking points mentioning a terrorist connection; the final unclassified talking points only mentioned “extremist” elements, and U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s use of those talking points has become the most prominent line of attack for Republicans.
George Republican Saxby Chambliss, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said the talking points were altered. But panel Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said they were not altered to remove references to terrorists “to my knowledge.”
Some of the discrepancies in talking points might be related to carefully nuanced language, said Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a House Intelligence panel member.
“It’s possible that there were some subtleties that were used, some words that may have been understood by some to mean one thing where others may have had a different understanding of words,” Langevin said. “For example, ‘extremists’ versus ‘terrorists.’ Some look at those as interchangeable, some look at them as one and the same.”
Langevin added that his concerns have been addressed by Petraeus and other intelligence officials, who briefed the panel Thursday.
Adam B. Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence panel, also said he was satisfied with what he heard.
“The general provided additional insight on his views as well as the intelligence community views,” said Schiff, D-Calif. “We already had a pretty good understanding based on our briefing yesterday.”
When it came to the controversy over descriptions of the attack offered by Rice during a September television interview, Senate Intelligence panel member Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said “what is very clear” is that the entire intelligence community signed off on the unclassified talking points that she used.
“So much of this confusion arises because of the difference between what is classified and what is unclassified,” he said. “So you hear different people saying different things at different times, because what is classified cannot be discussed publicly.”
Feinstein said the House panel requested the talking points that Rice eventually relied upon. “I don’t think she should be pilloried for this,” she said. “The way it keeps going, it’s almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character.”
Lawmakers said that House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., declared that questions about the affair that prompted Petraeus’ resignation were off limits, but Petraeus made clear that his resignation was not related to the fatal Benghazi attack.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., said that he had a chance to talk to Petraeus in an unclassified setting about his departure from the spy agency.
“He told me he did something dishonorable, and resigning was something honorable,” said the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, who attended the closed hearing.
Senators also said that they did not ask him about the affair. “We didn’t want to make it any more difficult for” Petraeus to testify on the Benghazi attack, Feinstein said. “We wanted to spare him that.”
Republicans said they wanted to know much more about the Benghazi attack, and more hearings are scheduled for next week. “I believe that there are still questions to be answered,” said Senate Intelligence panel member Dan Coats, R-Ind. “I think that anybody who is drawing conclusions based on these two hearings we’ve had, it’s a premature conclusion.”
Young said that “there are still a lot of questions,” adding, “A lot of that is classified information that should not be classified.”