Petraeus: The CIA's initial talking points about Benghazi mentioned Al Qaeda -- but the reference was removed

The (former) director of the CIA doesn’t know why the CIA’s finalized talking points omitted a key detail?

Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified in a closed-door hearing Friday morning that his agency determined immediately after the Sept. 11 Libya attack that “Al Qaeda involvement” was suspected — but the line was taken out in the final version circulated to administration officials, according to a top lawmaker who was briefed…

“The original talking points were much more specific about Al Qaeda involvement. And yet the final ones just said indications of extremists,” [Rep. Peter] King said, adding that the final version was the product of a vague “inter-agency process.”

Further, King said a CIA analyst specifically told lawmakers that the Al Qaeda affiliates line “was taken out.”

The obvious suspicion is that the White House or some other political actor up the food chain expunged the Al Qaeda reference because it was inconvenient to the Foreign Policy President’s “I destroyed Al Qaeda” reelection narrative. But Petraeus is no longer beholden to the administration. If that’s what happened, or if it’s what he suspected might have happened, why didn’t he say so today? His reputation had already taken a hit because of the bad early intel from the CIA on Benghazi before anyone knew who Paula Broadwell was. If that intel was actually the product of interference from political forces, he has every reason to clear his name by saying so. Instead, it sounds like he acknowleged today that the CIA did indeed ultimately approve the talking points Rice used that omitted the reference to Al Qaeda. Er, why’d they do that? If someone in a political office was pressuring the CIA to change the document, Petraeus would surely know about it, no?

Meanwhile, in a separate House Intel Committee briefing with DNI James Clapper and acting CIA Director Mike Morell:

Fox News was told that neither Clapper nor Morell knew for sure who finalized [the talking points the White House initially relief on]. And they could not explain why they minimized the role of a regional Al Qaeda branch as well as the militant Ansar al-Sharia despite evidence of their involvement.

The three biggest names in American intelligence still haven’t been able to figure out who removed a key part of an intel finding that’s been hotly disputed in public for two months? That’s like Obama needing an investigation to find out what he did or didn’t order the military to do to rescue Americans pinned down at the CIA annex on the night of the attack. How hard would it be to find this out? Presumably the CIA uses the same basic word processing programs as every other organization; go back through the saved drafts and figure out where the reference to Al Qaeda mysteriously disappeared.

What’s doubly curious about all this is that any of these guys could have simply said, “Well, there were early signs of Al Qaeda involvement but nothing firm enough at the time to warrant inclusion in a statement to the public.” That’s arguably true: Eli Lake reported back on October 1 that U.S. intelligence had intercepted communications during and after the attack between people in Ansar al-Sharia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That’s strong evidence of coordination but maybe not a smoking gun. Since then, U.S. officials have gotten firmer about AQIM’s involvement; there was even a report a few weeks ago about jihadis from Al Qaeda in Iraq possibly being involved. My point, though, is that neither Petraeus, Clapper, nor Morell appears to be defending the agency on grounds that the early intel wasn’t ripe enough yet. It sounds from King and Fox’s report like they’re kinda sorta conceding that, yeah, maybe the Al Qaeda reference shouldn’t have been removed. Petraeus, in fact, seems to have taken the attitude this morning that the attack was obviously terrorism from the get-go. Or maybe all of this is just King’s/Fox’s interpretation of more complex answers they gave? This is why public hearings would be useful.

Update:Daniel Halper at the Standard. Intelligence sources were whispering about the Al Qaeda omission to Stephen Hayes weeks ago. That’s how suspicious they were of it:

One thing that has troubled both intelligence officials and those on Capitol Hill as they have evaluated the administration’s early response to the attacks is what appears to be an effort to write al Qaeda out of the story. For example, the talking points first reported by Lake, include this sentence: “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” But according to several officials familiar with the original assessment from which the talking points were derived, the U.S. intelligence community had reported the fact that these were extremists with ties to al Qaeda. That key part was omitted.

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