U.S.
5:24 am
Sat November 17, 2012

After Benghazi Hearings, Flurry Of Concern Unsettled

Originally published on Sat November 17, 2012 2:16 pm

David Petraeus' resignation from the CIA further complicated the debate over the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Petraeus, a key figure in the events, stepped down as director after admitting to an extramarital affair. But members of Congress were so anxious to hear from him that they brought Petraeus back to Capitol Hill on Friday to get his version of the Benghazi story.

President Obama's critics say there's much about Benghazi that reflects poorly on his administration, but this week they focused on comments by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on TV talk shows, five days after the attack.

While the closed hearings have answered some questions, the flurry of concerns is far from settled.

What Ambassador Rice Said

Four Americans were killed in the attack, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. In the interviews that followed, Rice said the attack began as a "spontaneous" demonstration prompted by anger over an anti-Muslim video and that "extremists" only joined later.

Some Republicans are so outraged by Rice's failure to blame al-Qaida that they said this week they'll block her from becoming secretary of state if Obama nominates her. That angered the president, who in a news conference Wednesday vigorously defended Rice's comments.

"She made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her," he said.

So the White House sent Rice out on those Sunday shows, and Rice was given talking points. But the explanation she gave has since changed.

Intelligence officials now say the Benghazi attack was not spontaneous, and they think an al-Qaida offshoot was behind it.

The discrepancy in the accounts raised a number of questions this week: Did Rice, at the behest of the White House, deliberately downplay the Benghazi attack?

Who approved the talking points that guided her comments? If it was Petraeus, was it only because he knew he was under an FBI investigation and was hoping to stay out of trouble with the White House?

A Change In The Narrative

Some answers materialized Friday. In behind-closed-door appearances on Capitol Hill, Petraeus is said to have denied any connection between his troubles and the Benghazi controversy.

But on the other issues, the answers are not so clear. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Petraeus left him thinking someone had sanitized Rice's TV talking points.

"The original talking points were much more specific about al-Qaida involvement. And the final ones just said, 'indications of extremists,' even though it was clearly evident to the CIA that there was al-Qaida involvement," he said.

But Democrats in Congress had a different interpretation. Kent Conrad, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he learned from Petraeus that Rice did not mention al-Qaida's involvement because it hadn't been cleared for public discussion yet.

"She used the unclassified talking points that were signed off on by the entire intelligence community. So criticisms of her are completely unwarranted," he said.

That view got some support Friday. A senior intelligence official said any information about an al-Qaida link was classified at that time. Rice's Benghazi talking points, the official said, were not edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack.

A Political Purpose?

Still, some Republicans think Rice was trying to spin the Benghazi story for political reasons.

"She even mentioned that under the leadership of Barack Obama we had decimated al-Qaida," says Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Well, she knew at that point in time that al-Qaida was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens."

Petraeus told Congress on Friday that the White House did not insert politics into the process of deciding what would be said about the attack, according to lawmakers who were in the closed briefings Friday.

Petraeus, though now disgraced by a sex scandal, managed to set the record straight Friday on some points, but the administration's handling of the Benghazi story remains controversial, and Rice is at the center of it all.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.