Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell repeatedly told the House Intelligence Committee that he and other intelligence analysts initially believed the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was a terrorist attack that evolved out of a protest to an anti-Islamic video.
The idea that the attack stemmed from a protest “was a narrative that intelligence community analysts believed that turned out to be incorrect,” he testified Wednesday.
“That is what they believed at the time, so there's no politics there,” he added.
Morell was disputing Republican assertions that the Obama administration in the first days after the attack purposely downplayed the role of terrorism and blamed a protest as its cause to avoid political blowback for the president two months before the November election.
Republicans have pointed to new evidence and closed-door testimony that eyewitness State Department and CIA employees on the ground quickly disputed any notion that the attack had been preceded by a protest.
They specifically cited an email from the CIA's station chief in Libya to his superiors in Washington dated Sept. 15 pointedly telling them there was no demonstration before the attack.
The attack was “not an escalation of protests” the station chief wrote to Morrell the day before the White House sent then Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on several Sunday political talk shows. In her interviews, Rice said the deadly siege stemmed from an anti-American protest, a claim the administration later took back.
Morrell addressed the email, acknowledging that he and his staff received it and “immediately” responded to it by asking for more information from the station.
“Mr. Chairman, I did not hide, nor did I downplay the station chief's comment, as some have suggested,” he said. “In fact, I did just the opposite. I addressed this critical difference of opinion immediately and appropriately.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the Intelligence Committee, pressed Morrell on why he didn't immediately conclude that the attack was strictly terrorism, especially after receiving the station chief's email that it had nothing to do with a protest.
“I believe that the White House wanted America to believe in al Qaeda to be on the run, thus they needed the attacks to be in response to an anti-Islamic video,” he said. “And so the White House used your talking points to say so.”
Morell said CIA analysts on Sept. 13 – two days before he received the email – came to the conclusion that the attack spun out of an anti-American demonstration. After receiving the email, he said he didn't find the station chief's arguments definitive because some press reports said there was a protest while others said there was no demonstration.
He said the station chief's other argument — that his officers, who showed up at the compound after the attack started, said they didn't see a protest — was also not conclusive because any protest would likely have dissipated by then.
“I felt that if the analysts were going to re-look at their judgment made just three days before that they needed more information from the station chief on why he thought what he thought.” he said. “That's what I asked for that morning, was for him to go back and produce a piece of paper that provided more detail on why he believed there to be no protest. He did that in 24 hours.”
Rogers also pressed Morrell on why, during testimony on Sept. 15, 2012 before the House Intelligence Committee, he didn't say why the first CIA-generated talking points on Benghazi had removed any reference to al Qaeda's involvement in the attacks.
Morrell explained that he didn't know at the time who had edited out the reference to al Qaeda although he acknowledged that he was responsible for several other edits.
Congressional investigations have since discovered that officials in the CIA's Office of Public Affairs and Congressional Affairs deleted the phrase “with ties to al Qaeda” because they believed any mention of the terror group could hinder the FBI's investigation into the attack.
“In retrospect, what I wish I would have done was to say to you, Chairman, I do not know who took al-Qaeda out of the talking points, but you should know that I, myself, made a number of changes to the points,” Morrell said. “That's what I should have said; I didn't.”
This story was published at 12:32 p.m. and has been updated.