Petraeus testifies Benghazi attack was al Qaeda terrorism
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill on Friday that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was an act of terrorism committed by al Qaeda-linked militants.
That’s according to U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York, who spoke to reporters after the closed hearing, which lasted an hour and 20 minutes.
The account Petraeus gave was different from the description the Obama administration gave on September 14, King said.
Then, the attack was described as “spontaneous,” the result of a protest against an anti-Muslim film that got out of control outside the compound.
King said that the word “spontaneous” was “minimized” during Petraeus’ testimony Friday.
“He had told us that this was a terrorist attack and there were terrorists involved from the start,” King said. “I told him, my questions, I had a very different recollection of that (earlier account),” he said. “The clear impression we (lawmakers) were given was that the overwhelming amount of evidence was that it arose out of a spontaneous demonstration and it was not a terrorist attack.”
The cause of that discrepancy is unclear, King said.
Petraeus told Kyra Phillips of HLN, CNN’s sister network, that his resignation was not linked to the Benghazi attack and that he never passed classified information to the woman he was having an affair with at the time — sentiments he repeated at Friday’s hearing, lawmakers said.
But Petraeus did not get into details about the reason why he resigned from the CIA a week ago: the exposure of an extramarital with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
However, he did tell lawmakers during a 20-minute opening statement that he regretted the situation, King said.
The discussion of what spurred the Benghazi attack seemed to gain momentum thanks to comments Broadwell made in a speech last month at the University of Denver.
“I don’t know if a lot of you have heard this, but the CIA annex had actually taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner, and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to get these prisoners back,” she said.
“These detention claims are categorically not true. Nobody was ever held at the annex before, during or after the attacks,” a senior intelligence official told CNN on Monday.
King told reporters that he likes Petraeus and that it was uncomfortable, at times, to interview a man he considers a friend.
“He was a strong soldier. Very professional, very knowledgeable, very strong,” King said. “He’s a solid guy. I consider him a friend, which made the questioning tough. You realize the human tragedy here.”
The consulate attack, which occurred this past September 11, left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Petraeus was not under oath, King said.
The event became a political hot button during a presidential election year and raised questions about everything from security at the compound to the Obama administration’s initial description of the events.
Petraeus’ surprise resignation last week added fuel to that debate. The United States’ top spy publicly admitted to an extramarital affair, and critics of the administration suggested that his resignation might be linked to fallout over the attack.
King and other lawmakers who spoke after the hearing said Petraeus testified that his resignation had nothing to do with the consulate attack.
Earlier, close observers said they thought Petraeus would tell lawmakers that the CIA knew soon after the attack that Ansar al Sharia was responsible, according to an official with knowledge of the case. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Ansar al Sharia is more of a label than an organization, one that’s been adopted by conservative Salafist groups across the Arab world.
It’s unclear to media whether Petraeus spoke specifically about Ansar al Sharia.
After the hearing, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, blamed confusion over two seemingly different versions of the consulate violence — was it caused by a protest or by terrorists?
He said there were essentially two threads of violence: one caused by the protest, which was chaotic, and a second that was orchestrated by terrorists, which was highly coordinated.
There were “two different types of situations at play,” Ruppersberger said, explaining that in the hours and days after the attack, it was naturally difficult to clearly discern what happened.
Intelligence evolves, he said, and new information comes out when agents obtain it. He downplayed the idea that there was something untoward going on.
The former CIA chief has said there was a stream of intelligence from multiple sources, including video at the scene, that indicated the group was behind the attack, according to an official with knowledge of the situation.
Meanwhile, separate intelligence indicated the violence at the consulate was inspired by protests in Egypt over an ostensibly anti-Islam film that was privately produced in the United States. The movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizing buffoon.
There were 20 intelligence reports that indicated that anger about the film may be to blame, the official said.
The CIA eventually disproved those reports, but not before Petraeus’ initial briefing to Congress the day after the attack when he discussed who might be behind the attack and what prompted it. During that briefing, he raised Ansar al Sharia’s possible connection as well as outrage about the film, the official said.
Earlier an official said that Petraeus’ aim in testifying was to clear up “a lot of misrepresentations of what he told Congress initially.”
Petraeus testified that he developed unclassified talking points in the days after the attack but he had no direct involvement in developing the ones used by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, King said.
Rice has been under fire for suggesting the attack on the consulate was a spontaneous event spurred by a protest against the anti-Muslim film.