WASHINGTON—The former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Wednesday pushed back against Republican accusations that the since-debunked Benghazi talking points were the result of political pressure.
Michael Morell made the statements during more than three hours of testimony in a rare public hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He acknowledged going against the assessment of the chief of station in Tripoli and removing language about prior CIA warnings of terrorist threats in Libya, but he insisted that politics did not play a role in any decision-making.
“I thought it was inappropriate to say, ‘Hey, we warned,’ therefore laying all the blame on the State Department,” Morell said. “I thought there would be plenty of time to discuss who was warned and how. I didn’t think that discussion should start publicly.”
Then-Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice gave the disputed talking points, which then-CIA director David Petraeus later called “useless,” in five national Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, 2012. Wednesday’s hearing came after the discovery of an email from the chief of station in Tripoli, sent to his superiors in Washington on Sept. 15. In it, he said the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, four days earlier was “not an escalation of protests.”
The station chief offered two reasons for his assessment: Personnel who arrived on the scene an hour after the attack found no signs of a protest, and local press had no reports of protests. But Morell told lawmakers, “I didn’t find either compelling.” Morell, then the agency’s deputy director, said he instead went with the opinion of his stateside analysts, who had not spoken to anyone on the ground in Libya, and notified Petraeus of the discrepancy.
Morell said at the time, he had other credible intelligence reports of protests in Libya. “At this point we know there wasn’t a protest, so it’s not about what actually happened, but what we thought happened at the time.”
Morell also acknowledged removing the word “Islamic” as an adjective explaining the extremists—he didn’t want to inflame tensions, and, “What other kind of extremists are there in Libya?” He also removed the entire bullet point about Ansar al-Sharia, which initially claimed responsibility for the attack before retracting the statement.
Morell repeatedly confirmed that “right away” the United States knew al-Qaeda operatives were involved in the attack, directly contradicting a controversial New York Times report to the contrary. But Morell said it was the right move to exclude a reference to al-Qaeda in the talking points, because “the only way we knew” was through classified sources.
Morell took most of the responsibility for the talking points, and insisted White House personnel only made three minor changes to the script.
“They didn’t have to make changes, because you made the changes for them,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. retorted. She cited a Tuesday meeting with the chief of station who “adamantly” maintained the attack was never considered spontaneous or the result of a disputed YouTube video.
Morell, who left the CIA eight months ago after 33 years with the agency, vehemently denied allegations that he acted to protect President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But his new job doesn’t help his case: He now works for a small Washington, D.C., consulting firm co-owned by Philippe Reines—Hillary Clinton's spokesman.
Democrats on the committee called Republican efforts on Benghazi “very disappointing,” a “waste of time,” and a “partisan smear campaign” full of “baseless conspiracy theories.” Several cited the financial cost of the ongoing investigation and said government resources would be better spent elsewhere.
“The bottom line is we’ve got people running around who killed Americans,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., shouted in response. “That’s why I don’t think we should let it go. That’s why I don’t think the American people should let it go.”
Family members of the Benghazi victims have also continuously called for answers, including Michael Ingmire, Sean Smith’s uncle, in a Wednesday Fox News column. Smith was a foreign-service officer killed during the attack. A February poll found 66 percent of Americans want Congress to continue investigating what happened in Benghazi.
Morell and members of both parties expressed regret that the United States still has not apprehended any of the terrorists responsible for the attack.
Wayne Simmons, a former CIA officer and a member of the Citizens' Commission on Benghazi, blasted both Morell and congressional leaders after Wednesday’s hearing: “Covering up an attack that killed four Americans serving their country abroad isn’t a ‘bureaucratic mistake,’ it’s a dereliction of duty and a slap in the face for the families who lost loved ones due to Hillary Clinton’s indifference, incompetence or both. By their inattention, Congress has in effect become complicit with the coverup.”
The commission, comprised of former military officers, intelligence agents, and national security experts, is expected to release a report on the Benghazi attack this month.