Washington Bureau

04.02.14

CIA Strikes Back On Benghazi

The CIA’s deputy director during the Benghazi attack responded to Republican allegations Wednesday that he lied to Congress.

In a rare open hearing, Michael Morell, the deputy CIA director during the 9-11 anniversary assault in Benghazi on Wednesday, fired back at Republicans who have alleged that he cherry picked intelligence for government-wide talking points in the aftermath of the attacks.

The former deputy and acting director of the CIA has come under fire in the last month from some Republicans for allegedly lying to Congress and editing the now infamous Benghazi talking points. Despite multiple streams of intelligence to the contrary, the talking points for senior government officials in the aftermath of Benghazi and in the heat of the 2012 presidential election said the attack stemmed from demonstrations. 

At first Republicans fixed blame for the talking points on the most prominent U.S. official who read them, Susan Rice. In interviews with five major Sunday shows, Rice—who was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations--said the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans grew out of a demonstration against an Internet video that negatively depicted the life of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.

In his written testimony, Morell said, “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.”

While Morell acknowledged the CIA could have done a “better job” on some aspects of its analysis of Benghazi. The former top intelligence official also said that none of the agency’s flaws “reflect any intention to mislead Congress or the American people or any intention to provide political benefit to anyone.”

But some members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have another view of the matter. On Tuesday, the CIA’s station chief during the Benghazi attack testified in a classified session before Congress. He told lawmakers on the committee that his assessment for the entire week of the attack was that the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack and not a mob that had gotten out of control. The Senate Intelligence Committee came to a similar conclusion in its report on Benghazi as well.

In his opening statement Wednesday, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Morell told senior officials inside the Obama administration a day before Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows “that the chief of station reported that there was no protest.” But Morell said that the chief of station mused in one communication that one of three possible motivations of the attackers could have been a reaction to the anti-Muslim web video. 

Morell acknowledged that he had read the cable from the station chief in Libya in his testimony. But he also said his assessment was at odds with the evaluation of CIA analysts who had prepared the classified analysis that informed initial drafts of the talking points read by Rice.

He said the chief of station based his assessment that there was no demonstration on two pieces of evidence. The first was that local press reports said there was no demonstration. But Morell said there were other press reports that said there was. Also, the chief of station relied on the accounts of CIA security contractors who were sent to Benghazi that evening. “This was not compelling because these officers did not arrive until almost an hour after the attack started and the protesters could have dispersed by them,” Morell said.

But the chief of station was not the only person to alert U.S. officials that there was no demonstration that evening. Greg Hicks, who was the deputy to Ambassador Stevens, testified last year that he told then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there was no demonstration on the night of the attack. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican member of the House intelligence committee, challenged Morell. She said there were multiple streams of intelligence--including signal intercepts and reports from human sources in Benghazi that confirmed that Benghazi was a terrorist attack before Rice's appearance on the Sunday shows. 

One U.S. intelligence official who has worked on the intelligence on Benghazi told The Daily Beast this week that there nearly all of the human sources for the CIA in Benghazi also confirmed it was a terrorist attack along with considerable amounts of signal intercepts picked up by the NSA that evening.

The Daily Beast first reported that the United States monitored communications between some of the Benghazi attackers and individuals in al Qaeda’s North African affiliate on the evening of the attack as well. But Morell said that the CIA analysts who prepared the first assessment did not have access to all of this reporting from the field or interview transcripts of U.S. officials on the ground in Benghazi at the time.

Morell also addressed allegations from some Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham, that he misled them in November 2012 at a meeting to discuss the possible nomination of Rice to be secretary of state. She eventually withdrew her name from consideration and has since been appointed National Security Advisor

Since that meeting, Graham has alleged that Morell told him that it was the FBI and not the CIA and himself who edited the Benghazi talking points. In his testimony Morell said he regrets that he left the senators with the wrong impression.

“I strongly regret that left the Senators with the impression that I deliberately misled them,” he said. “I did not – nor did I intend to – do so.”