Updated 3:00 pm ET -- Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified Friday before congressional intelligence panels telling members that he had believed from the outset that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was an act of terrorists.
NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reported that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said after hearing from Petraeus that Obama administration officials made a decision to hold back as classified information an explicit depiction of Benghazi incident as an act of terrorists -- therefore that description did not make it into the “talking points” that the administration prepared for officials when they went on TV talk shows and spoke to reporters.
Instead, the initial talking points focused on spontaneous reactions to an anti-Islamic video as a spark for the attack. Five days after attack, the administration dispatched U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to speak on the Sunday news shows to offer a preliminary explanation of the attack, which she attributed to an anti-Islamic video that was circulated on YouTube.
In the attack Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans – Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith – were killed.
Keeping as classified the determination that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists may have been done in order to help pursue those very same terrorists.
“There might have been two tracks happening all along: the public statements that were reflecting part of what they may have known” and the classified information that terrorists had been the ones attacking the consulate. “The real question is if they knew it was terrorism all along – was there too much suggestion that a video or demonstrations may have been involved?” said O’Donnell.
House Intelligence Committee member Peter King, R-N.Y., told reporters Friday after Petraeus testified that the initial “talking points” from the Obama administration to prepare officials for what they should say publicly in the first days after the attack had been changed to delete references to any al Qaida involvement in the event.
King said he and his colleagues now needed to hear testimony from officials in the State Department, the Defense Department “and also people at the White House – to see if anyone at the White House changed the talking points.”
King told reporters after Petraeus testified that “his testimony today was that from the start (immediately after Sept. 11) he had told us that this was a terrorist attack, that terrorism was involved from the start.”
But King said that he himself “had a very different recollection" of what Petraeus had told the panel in the initial aftermath of the attack.
"The clear impression that we (members of the House Intelligence Committee) were given (in the initial days after the attack) was that the overwhelming amount of evidence was that it arose out of a spontaneous demonstration and it was not a terrorist attack,” King said.
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts after hearing from Petraeus that “I can’t agree that there was entirely an intelligence failure” in the days leading up to the attack.
He said, “The intelligence community did put people in the area of Benghazi and in Libya generally. It was a hot spot, it was an area where you had to be on high alert – they did not pick up the actual attack itself. So we’re evaluating whether or not it was or was not an intelligence failure.”
Another House Intelligence Committee member, Rep. Tom Rooney, R–Fla., told MSNBC’s Roberts that he’d learned from the Petraeus testimony how inadequate the protection at the consulate was on Sept 11.
“We had less than a handful of security there for the ambassador,” Rooney said. “First of all, I don’t know why the ambassador was there on 9/11 to begin with, but that’s a whole other story. Second we were relying really on local Libyan militia who – if there was anything coordinated about the two attacks, at the compound and at the annex, it is that there was a coordinated absence by the people who were supposed to be protecting us.” He said the Libyan militia “were nowhere to be found” when the assault occurred.
Rooney added that President Barack Obama has said “he did everything he could” to protect the consulate. “He may have done everything he could, but it wasn’t enough because our people are dead.”
The investigation into the Benghazi events has become a major focus for members of Congress returning to the Capitol after last week’s elections. The episode has political implications not only for Obama but for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
Petraeus resigned one week ago after the revelation of his adulterous affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
Rice told NBC’s David Gregory on Meet the Press Sept. 16 that “putting together the best information that we have available to us today – our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo – almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.”
She added that in Benghazi “opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which, unfortunately, are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and that escalated into a much more violent episode.”
Rice is said to be in the running to be Obama’s nominee to be secretary of state once Clinton departs.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republican senators have made clear they will use any means they can to block her nomination if Obama does select her.
“I don’t trust her,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Rice, calling her “more a political operative than she is anything else when it comes to Benghazi.”
Obama defended Rice Wednesday, saying she had “represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace… Should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her.”
McCain on Wednesday introduced a resolution to create a special eight-member select Senate committee to examine the attack on the consulate. But McCain’s proposal got a mostly chilly reception Wednesday from Chambliss and other senators.
NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and the Associated Press contributed to this report.