Benghazi, Not Petraeus Affair, Is Focus at Closed Hearings

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WASHINGTON -- In closed sessions before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on Friday, David H. Petraeus apologized to lawmakers about his affair with Paula Broadwell, which led to his resignation last week as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but lawmakers said later that they did not ask about the matter.

Instead, the focus of both hearings was the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, two months ago that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Mr. Petraeus said that classified intelligence showed that the deadly raid on the diplomatic mission was a terrorist attack, but that the administration withheld the suspected role of specific Qaeda affiliates to avoid tipping off the terrorist groups.

The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies prepared unclassified talking points on the attack for members of Congress, and in them the references to Qaeda affiliates were changed to the less specific "extremists" to avoid revealing to insurgents that American intelligence agencies were eavesdropping on their electronic communications.

Republicans have criticized the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, for suggesting that the siege in Benghazi was a spontaneous protest rather than an opportunistic terrorist attack. Ms. Rice used the less specific, unclassified talking points when she appeared on five Sunday talk shows five days after the attack.

"The fact is, the reference to Al Qaeda was taken out somewhere along the line by someone outside the intelligence community," said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican, told reporters after the House hearing. "We need to find out who did it and why."

Democrats leapt to Ms. Rice's defense after the Senate hearing, saying she was simply following the unclassified talking points provided to her. Ms. Rice did not stray from those talking points, lawmakers said Mr. Petraeus told them.

"I really think Ambassador Rice is being treated unfairly," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Intelligence Committee.

Ms. Feinstein declined to offer any assessments on flawed intelligence or security lapses related to the attack, saying that the panel intended to hold two additional closed hearings, then produce a set of unclassified findings that would be presented in a public hearing.

But the panel's senior Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said the matter with Ms. Rice had not been fully resolved. Mr. Chambliss said federal investigators were getting a clearer picture of what groups or individuals were responsible for the attack. President Obama has repeatedly said the assailants will be brought to justice.

"How did this group penetrate the facility that we had in Benghazi, and who were these folks?" Mr. Chambliss said, speaking to reporters afterward. "We're getting closer to determining that. We know they were Al Qaeda affiliates or Al Qaeda itself."

American intelligence officials and Libyans at the scene have said that a local militant group, Ansar al-Shariah, was largely responsible for the attack, and that some of its members probably have ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the organization's North African arm.

These officials have disputed the notion that Al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan or its affiliate in North Africa organized or directed the assault on the diplomatic mission and a C.I.A. base about a mile away.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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