By Jennifer Rizzo, with reporting from Pam Benson
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 Rep. Peter King (R-NY), 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.
Petraeus told lawmakers Friday that he had discussed the possibility of it being a terrorist attack in his initial briefing in September, according to King.
"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 "spontaneous" adjective was "minimized" during Petraeus' testimony Friday, King said.
The cause of that discrepancy is unclear, King said.
Earlier an official said that Petraeus' aim in testifying was to clear up "a lot of misrepresentations of what he told Congress initially."
The former CIA director was expected to tell the congressional committees that he did develop unclassified talking points in the days after the attack but had had no direct involvement in developing the ones used by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
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.
King said the original talking points were much more specific about the involvment of Al Qaeda.
"Final ones just said indications of extremists," King said. "It said indicate even though it was clearly evident to the CIA that there was Al Qaeda involvement."
Questions still remain over the development of the talking points.
“Basically it is still not clear how the final talking points emerged. (Petraeus) said it went through a long process involving many agencies including the Department of Justice, including the State Department and no one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points other than to say the original talking points prepared by the CIA were different from the ones that were finally put out,” said King.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee disagreed with King, saying that the talking points did not change.
"The talking points were not changed," Smith said. "The talking points were very basic and straight forward."
Several democrats who were briefed said Petraeus explained the unclassified talking points did not make mention of extremist elements because it was still classified – and could have compromised intelligence sources, CNN's Dana Bash reported.
Smith took part in a separate briefing with the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.
Clapper read to the group the original three talking points used by Ambassador Rice. There was no mention of al Qaeda or Ansar Al Sharia in those points, according to Smith.
"This has become so partisan and so political," he said.
A senior U.S. official told CNN that the talking points were drafted by the CIA and "reflected what it believed at that point in time." The memo was reviewed "CIA leadership and coordinated in the interagency at a senior level," the official said.
The first draft of the CIA unclassified talking points stated there were indications the attack was linked to al Qaeda, but during the interagency process when the talking points were reviewed, al Qaeda was changed to extremists. The official said the change “was not a political decision.”
"The points 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. There were legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly." the official explained. "First, the information about individuals linked to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources. Second, when links were so tenuous—as they still are—it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers so you don’t set off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions. Third, it is important to be careful not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages.”
The official said the controversy over the word "terrorist" caught the intelligence community by "surprise."
“Most people understand that saying “extremists” were involved in a direct assault on the mission isn’t shying away from the idea of terrorist involvement," the official said. "People assumed that it was apparent in this context that extremists who attack US facilities and kill Americans are, by definition, terrorists. Because of the various elements involved in the attack, the term extremist was meant to capture the range of participants."
The talking points, the senior U.S. official explained, "were a reflection of the understanding at the time that could be provided at an unclassified level. They were preliminary and were never meant to be the final word on the issue."
On who authorized the final version of the talking points, a US intelligence official said, "We're reviewing the coordination trail."
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