WASHINGTON — Former CIA director David Petraeus told lawmakers Friday that the agency had secretly assessed that al-Qaida-linked gunmen attacked the U.S. Consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, but that classified references to the terrorist group were cut from talking points on which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice relied for television interviews.
Petraeus testified in closed hearings of the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees a week after his startling admission to adultery and his resignation from the CIA roiled official Washington, igniting a scandal that grew to ensnare the Marine general who commands U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking after the back-to-back sessions, lawmakers said that Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general who once commanded the U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, apologized for his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But the issue didn't figure at all in his testimony or their questions, they said.
"The general did not address any specifics of the affair, of that issue. What he did say in his opening statement was that he regrets the circumstances that led to his resignation," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.
Petraeus was kept hidden from the news media as he was escorted in and out of the hearings, which the committees held as they conduct two of four congressional investigations into the Benghazi attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, another State Department staffer and two CIA contract security officers.
Republican lawmakers have led a political outcry over the tragedy. They have targeted Rice with charges that in five TV shows five days after the assaults, she cast the attacks as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation, in a deliberate bid to protect President Barack Obama's record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign.
Several senior Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said earlier this week that they would oppose Rice if Obama nominates her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has made it clear that she doesn't want to stay on for the second term.
Petraeus, lawmakers said, told the committees that from the beginning the CIA had assessed that members of al-Qaida affiliates were involved in the assaults.
But the references to al-Qaida were struck from the final version of unclassified talking points that the intelligence community originally approved for public use by House Intelligence Committee members and then provided to Rice for her television appearances, they said.
"The original talking points prepared by the CIA were different from the ones that were finally put out, even though it was clearly evident to the CIA that there was al-Qaida involvement," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. He added that the references to "al-Qaida involvement" were dropped for "indications of extremists."
King quoted Petraeus as saying he didn't know who made the revisions during a "long, interagency process."
McClatchy Newspapers reported that a senior U.S. official who is familiar with the matter said the al-Qaida references were struck from the unclassified version because they came from secret sources. Moreover, the network's links to the attacks were tenuous, and making them public at that time could have skewed further intelligence-gathering and tainted an FBI criminal investigation into the attacks, the official said, according to McClatchy.
It remained unclear, however, why the CIA and the administration said there was a protest outside the consulate when Libya's interim president and local witnesses were saying none had taken place, and administration officials said at first that they couldn't confirm there was one.
Administration officials eventually conceded there was no protest and that the assaults appeared to involve militants from a local Islamist group, Ansar al Shariah, and others linked to al-Qaida's North Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Republicans said they still had questions about the attacks. They included why the State Department hadn't strengthened security at the consulate.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Petraeus made it clear that the security measures at the consulate were not adequate.
"Clearly the security measures were inadequate despite an overwhelming and growing amount of information that showed the area in Benghazi was dangerous, particularly on the night of September 11," Rubio, said.