During a Congressional hearing that lasted more than three hours, former C.I.A. Deputy Director Michael Morell praised his former agency’s intelligence analysts as the best on the globe, yet ones who he admits were sorely mistaken when they reported that spontaneous protesters were to blame for the Beghazi, Libya terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2012.
“As you now know, subsequent information revealed their judgment to be incorrect [but]…that is where the best available information led them at the time, not because of politics,” Morell testified before the House Intelligence Committee today.
When Morell’s own C.I.A. station chief in Tripoli, Libya sent evidence that the Benghazi attacks were not the outgrowth of protests over a YouTube video, he says he and his Washington analysts disregarded it and didn’t pass it along to other agencies.
Morell was called to testify after several Republican member of Congress alleged new evidence shows he misled them by withholding what he knew about the genesis of the government’s so-called talking points after the attacks. It turns out that Morell was a key player in editing the talking points and interfacing with the White House.
Under questioning from members on the committee, Morell described a process under which C.I.A. analysts in Washington provided an early assessment without seeking or receiving information from the many C.I.A. officers and other witnesses on the ground in Libya. And when the C.I.A. Tripoli station chief attempted to correct the record in an email to headquarters on Sept. 15, 2012, Morell says it was discounted as unreliable. According to Morell, the email claimed the attacks were “not an escalation of a protest.” However, Morell said that intel relied on press reports and C.I.A. officers on site who probably would have arrived too late to see a protest anyway.
“My actions were appropriate in response as Deputy Director of CIA,” Morell testified. “I immediately recognized the discrepancy between my station chief and the judgment of our [Washington] analysts.”
Morell says he asked his analysts to revisit their judgment and “they stuck to their initial conclusion” that the attacks were by protesters. Morell defended the decision. “I did not hide nor did I downplay the station chief’s comments as some have suggested, in fact I did the opposite,” Morell said today.
But as a result of the misinformation, the approved talking points provided to members of Congress and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice continued to perpetuate the mistaken narrative that spontaneous protesters rather than calculated terrorists launched the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Finally the Answer to Who Removed “Al Qaeda”?
The controversy took place against the backdrop of a Presidential election campaign in which President Obama had claimed al Qaeda was on the run. At today’s hearing, Morell stated that the C.I.A. believed then, and that he still believes, “some of the attackers” were “affiliated with al Qaeda.” That information, too, was edited out of the talking points but Morell said he was not responsible for that word change.
“I did not take al Qaeda from the talking points,” Morell said. When asked who did, he answered, “The group of officers from our office of Congressional affairs and our office of public affairs.” Previously, government officials had vehemently denied that any public affairs officials made any edits to the talking points.
Morell did acknowledge personally removing the word “Islamic” from the phrase “Islamic extremists” in the talking points and says he did it for two reasons: so as not to further inflame passions in the Islamic world and because “what other kind of extremists are there in Libya?”
Morell also explained why he removed language that his own agency had included in the talking points disclosing that the C.I.A. had provided “warnings” in advance of the attacks. Morell differed with his boss, then C.I.A. Director David Petraeus, who wanted the warning language included.
“I reacted very strongly to inclusion of the warning language,” Morell testified. “I thought it was an effort on the C.I.A.’s part to make it look like we had warned and shift any blame to the State Department…I made a decision at that moment I got the talking points I was going to take the… language out.”
Indeed, one State Department source says they felt the C.I.A. warning language was “throwing them under the bus.” The references were removed. It was left unexplained as to why Morell was calling the shots, subordinate to his boss, Petraeus who wanted the warning language included.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) commented, “Petraeus seems so passive I’ve never know anyone so passive…Why was he sitting back the way he was?” Petraeus was under F.B.I. investigation for his alleged extramarital affair, which later prompted his resignation, but Morell says he was unaware of Petraeus’ troubles at the time.
The Talking Points’ Tortured History
The formulation of the talking points has been a key point of confusion and a story that has greatly evolved over time. On Fri. Nov. 16, 2012, Petraeus told members of Congress that it wasn’t the CIA that revised the talking points to remove controversial references to “terrorism” and “al Qaeda.” The White House and the State Department said it wasn’t them. The CIA then told reporters that the edits were made at a “senior level in the interagency process” so as not to tip off al Qaeda as to what the U.S. knew, and to protect sources and methods.
Soon thereafter, another reason was given. A source from the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI) told CBS News’ Margaret Brennan that ODNI made the edits as part of the interagency process because the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public.
Then, in November of 2012, Morell provided yet another account. In a meeting with Republican Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Morell stated that he believed it was the FBI that removed the references “to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation.” But it was just a matter of hours before there was yet another revision. A C.I.A. official contacted Graham and stated that Morell “misspoke” in the earlier meeting and that it was, in fact, the C.I.A., not the F.B.I., that deleted the al Qaeda references. “They were unable to give a reason as to why,” stated Graham at the time.
When asked today how such an experienced intelligence expert could get such an important fact so wrong, Morell said,
“I got it wrong and said the F.B.I. when in fact the C.I.A. was the one who took it out of the talking points…I got it mixed up.”
Other hearing highlights:
House Oversight Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI): “On February 23 of this year, Ambassador Rice stated she had no regrets and still believes the talking points reflected the best info we had at the time. That is simply wrong.”
Committee Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD): “We have found no conspiracies to editing of the talking points…we have only found the talking points were edited to ensure accuracy.”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY): We didn’t have the faintest idea you [Morell] were involved for six months [in editing the talking points]…at best it’s misleading by omission, at worst it’s lying by omission.”
Morell: “We did not deliberately downplay the role of terrorists in the Benghazi attack in our analysis or in the talking points.” “There are things that we should have done differently…but none of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process—none.”
Morell: “The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points nor did they ask me to make any substantive changes.”
Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN): “They didn’t have to change anything because you made the changes for them. You made significant, substantive changes for the White House.”
Morell: “The changes I made were fully consistent with what our analysts believed at the time, period.” Morell on Republican criticism that he misled at a previous Congressional hearing by remaining silent on talking point questions: “I should have said ‘I do not know who took terrorism out of the talking points, but that I made some changes.’”
Morell: “[The C.I.A.] should not be in the business of writing unclassified talking points for the American people…We are not trained at speaking to the American public. We see ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorist’ as the same thing. Obviously, the American public does not.”