WASHINGTON -- Former CIA director David H. Petraeus told Congress on Friday that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was clearly an act of terrorism, but he did not resolve the question of when the agency reached that conclusion, according to lawmakers who attended the closed-door sessions.
Several House and Senate intelligence committee members who heard Mr. Petraeus' testimony said he indicated that he believed immediately after the incident that it was a terrorist attack. That appeared to conflict with testimony he gave them three days after the attack, when he said it appeared to have begun as a "spontaneous" assault that was overtaken by "extremists."
The timing of the CIA's conclusion has become a contentious issue in Congress, where some prominent Republicans have charged that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President Barack Obama's leading candidate to become secretary of state, knowingly presented a whitewashed account in television appearances Sept. 16.
Reading from administration talking points, Ms. Rice hewed to the "spontaneous" theory, saying the attack began as a protest against an anti-Islamic video privately produced in the U.S. and was hijacked by extremists. In the TV interviews, she said this was the "best information" available, but stressed that the matter was under investigation.
Mr. Petraeus, who has not appeared in public since he resigned last week after revelations of an extramarital affair, avoided journalists awaiting his arrival for the hearings held in secret briefing rooms in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., said the House panel only briefly discussed the former general's affair with former Army officer Paula Broadwell, and Mr. Petraeus had assured them that his resignation related only to that, and not to the Benghazi attack.
According to accounts intelligence officials provided, the CIA concluded early that Benghazi was a terror attack because an assault on a U.S. installation with substantial firepower couldn't be classified otherwise.
In the swirl of initial reporting about the attack, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, two accounts made their way into the first analyses, the officials said. Reports from Libya described a demonstration at the Benghazi mission, similar to a large anti-U.S. protest the same day outside the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.
At the same time, intelligence quickly uncovered links to militant groups, including associates of al-Qaida. The administration did not make the terrorist links public until the Sept. 19 congressional testimony by Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Since then, the CIA and other intelligence analysts have settled on what amounts to a hybrid view, suggesting that the Cairo protest sparked militants in Libya, who quickly mobilized an assault.
Intelligence officials said details about possible al-Qaida involvement weren't included in talking points initially used by both Mr. Petraeus and Ms. Rice because they were preliminary and based on classified sources.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the talking points' drafting said Friday that they "reflected what was known at the time," and "were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack." Besides concerns about classified sources, the official said, "when links were so tenuous, as they still are, it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions."