WASHINGTON -- The CIA's former deputy director said Wednesday that he deleted references to terrorism warnings from widely disputed talking points on the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, to avoid the spy agency's gloating at the expense of the State Department.
Mike Morell faced more than three hours of questioning from the House Intelligence Committee in a rare open session that examined who changed the talking points --and why -- in the politically charged aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission there. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in two separate attacks over a chaotic period of several hours.
Multiple independent and congressional investigations have largely faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the Benghazi mission.
Mr. Morell, a 33-year veteran of the agency who has served six Republican and Democratic presidents, insisted that politics had no bearing on the revisions to the talking points, and said he was under no pressure to protect either President Barack Obama or then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did. Never," he said.
The White House, amid a fierce presidential campaign at the time, made only minor editorial changes to the talking points, the former CIA official said.
The intelligence community's talking points, compiled for members of Congress, suggested that the attack stemmed from protests in Cairo and elsewhere over an anti-Islamic video, rather than an assault by extremists.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of trying to mislead the American people about an act of terrorism in the final weeks ahead of the November election.
Mr. Morell deleted references to extremist threats tied to al-Qaida in versions of the talking points later used by Susan Rice, Mr. Obama's current national security adviser who then was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on several Sunday talk-shows. Mr. Morell said his actions were driven by information that intelligence analysts and the Defense Department had provided.
He said the CIA knew from classified sources that some individuals involved in the attack were al-Qaida-affiliated, information that couldn't be included unless it was declassified. The talking points were provided to committee members for dissemination to the American people.
Mr. Morell said he removed references to the warnings based on prior CIA analyses. Otherwise, he said, the talking points would have been a "way for CIA to pound its chest and say 'we warned,' laying all blame on the State Department." There would be plenty of time later on, he said, to determine what went wrong.
In his prepared testimony, Mr. Morell said he was deeply troubled by allegations from lawmakers and some in the media "that I inappropriately altered and influenced CIA's classified analysis and its unclassified talking points about what happened in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, and that I covered up those actions. These allegations accuse me of taking these actions for the political benefit of President Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton. These allegations are false," he said.
Mr. Morell said he and the agency could have done a better job, but he dismissed suggestions that the CIA "cooked the books" in the assessment of the attack. He said he had no idea that Ms. Rice would use the talking points on the Sunday shows.
Mr. Morell described his step-by-step actions, from the first time he saw the talking points on Friday, Sept. 14, to his concerns about including wording about the warnings. He said an intelligence analyst on Sept. 13 had said the attack evolved spontaneously from a protest. Mr. Morell said he believed his analyst that there had been a protest, but also believed it was a terrorist attack. He said he never considered the two to be mutually exclusive.
A year and a half after the assault, multiple congressional panels and an independent review have investigated the attack. The hearing underscored that the assault remains highly politicized, with no signs of abating, as Ms. Clinton is often cited as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., asserted that the White House had used the talking points "to perpetuate its own misguided political agenda. The White House wants to ignore reality and perpetuate the fallacy that al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists are on the verge of defeat."
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., complained about a "partisan smear campaign."
The panel's top Democrat, Maryland Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, bemoaned the fact that months after the attack, Congress was still discussing the talking points, when the focus should be on catching those who carried out the attacks.