Who, Me?

Congress Targets Leading Spy for Benghazi Spin

One of the most celebrated members of America’s intelligence community is under fire for his alleged role.

Jonathan Ernst/The New York Times, Redux

Since the attacks on the CIA station and U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Republicans have fixed blame for the attack on Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Barack Obama, among many others. On Wednesday, the GOP will be focusing on a new target: one of the most celebrated and trusted people in the American intelligence community.

Michael Morell, who at the time of the Benghazi attack was the deputy CIA director, is scheduled to testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on April 2 to discuss in open testimony something he only talked about with the committee in classified sessions before. Specifically, Morrell will be discussing his role in editing the government-wide talking points that initially said the attack was the outgrowth of a demonstration against an internet video about the life of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.

Many Republicans on that committee believe Morell misled them when he testified in closed session at the end of 2012 and in early 2013. Since the 2012 attacks, press reports and Congressional investigators have turned up evidence that in the days after the attack the CIA’s chief of station in Libya cabled back to headquarters to say there was no demonstration before the attack on the Benghazi mission. Nonetheless, the talking points read on the Sept. 16, 2012 by Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows claimed the attacks were the outgrowth of demonstrations against an internet video.

“We were asking (Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper very aggressively what happened to the talking points,” recalled Rep. Pete King, a Republican member of the House intelligence committee. “Morell was sitting there and never said a word. We had no idea I don’t think until May when the White House released those emails that Morrell played a role in this.”

King in the interview did not accuse Morell of outright lying. But he said that the purpose of intelligence committee hearings was oversight and the witnesses should not act as if they were participating in an adversarial court trial. “He’s sitting there and he had the obvious answer and sat there quietly, that’s lying by omission,” King said.

Morell has earned a reputation inside the intelligence community as an independent and respected analyst, twice serving as interim director of the CIA. He was George W. Bush's official briefer on the day of the 9-11 attacks. Obama appointed Morell on the panel to reform the NSA surveillance programs. In an interview last year with 60 Minutes, he became the first senior CIA official to say he did not think the harsh interrogations of senior al Qaeda leaders was consistent with American values.

Morell himself declined to discuss his testimony before Wednesday. But one of his allies who did speak to The Daily Beast said the open hearing would be an opportunity for the former deputy and acting CIA director to clear his name. “Michael Morell looks forward to testifying in open session and setting the record straight,” said Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman and a long-time friend of Morrell who has helped him prepare for the hearing.

In February, Fox News first reported that the Benghazi report from Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted that the intelligence community “took too long to correct” its initial erroneous reports on Benghazi, and that the guidance from the intelligence community continued to say the attack stemmed from a demonstration “without sufficient intelligence or eyewitness statements to corroborate that assertion.”

Morell himself did play a major role in the White House-led process to develop those talking points. But his exact role is still not clearly known. Congressional staff members say Morell will have the opportunity to make explicit what role he played in those edits.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, told Fox News on Sunday that the hearing this week would clear up whether the talking points on Benghazi were edited for political reasons.

“Many believe that there was political influence on the changing of those talking points… in the day that's happened right after the event,” he said.

Rogers added that the hearing will help determine if those charges are in fact true. On Friday, Rogers shocked many of his colleagues when he announced he would not be seeking re-election for Congress. The hearing may also provide the first audition for committee Republicans who hope to fill the chairman’s shoes.