By Suzanne Kelly
A conciliatory meeting between U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Republican critics backfired following revelations that the CIA removed terrorism references in unclassified talking points about the U.S. consulate attack in Libya.
Rice, who serves as the top U.S. envoy to the United Nations, met with Republican senators Tuesday over the September 11 attack against the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
She asked for the meeting with Republican Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham after their sharp criticism of her response to the Benghazi attack. The Republican senators have maintained that they are concerned about her explanation on what caused the attack.
At the time of the attack that left four Americans dead this year, Rice said an anti-U.S. demonstration led to the violence, an assertion later disproved by intelligence officials and reports from the ground.
During the morning meeting Tuesday, acting CIA Director Michael Morell said the FBI removed references to al Qaeda being behind the attack to prevent compromising an ongoing investigation.
A few hours later, the CIA told the lawmakers that it altered the talking points.
"CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why."
When asked whether Morell misspoke, the CIA had no comment.
A U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the CIA made the changes.
"There were several valid intelligence and investigatory reasons why they were changed," the official said. "The information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators."
In addition, the official said, the investigation was still in the preliminary stage.
A U.S. intelligence official defended the administration, saying the talking points were never meant to be permanent.
"The talking points were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks, if needed," the official said.
"They were never meant to be definitive and, in fact, noted that the assessment may change. The points clearly reflect the early indications of extremist involvement in a direct assault. It wasn't until after they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory information about how the assault began. ... There was absolutely no intent to misinform."
Speaking to reporters after the morning meeting, McCain and his fellow Republican lawmakers said they were "disturbed by the administration's continued inability to answer even the most basic questions" about the attack and how the White House responded.
Republican lawmakers said their Tuesday meeting with Rice and the acting CIA director left them with more unanswered questions about her remarks following attack.
"It was clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video," McCain said. "There was compelling evidence at the time that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don't bring mortars and rocket propelled grenades to a spontaneous demonstration."
Graham said he was "more disturbed now than I was before that 16 September explanation" given by Rice during a series of appearances on Sunday political talk shows
"I think it does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight was clearly completely wrong. But here's the key. In real time, it was a statement disconnected from reality," the South Carolina Republican said.
McCain, Graham and Ayotte have led the criticism of Rice over her television appearances days after the September attack, which killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three others.
Some Republicans have said they would block the nomination of Rice if President Barack Obama chooses her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she will leave her post when a replacement is ready.
She has not been offered Clinton's position, but is suspected to top the list of possible successors. At a news conference after his re-election, Obama called Republicans' criticism of Rice "outrageous" and said the critics should go after him instead.
Rice said neither she nor the administration intended to mislead and they updated Americans as the information evolved.
Morell took the reins of the spy agency two weeks ago after the sudden resignation of director David Petraeus amid an extramarital affair.
Later this week, Rice will meet with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the homeland security committee, which is investigating the Benghazi attack. Collins has not been as critical of Rice as the three senators, but has said Rice needs to explain what happened.
A spokesman for the director of National Intelligence has said that those talking points were prepared by the intelligence community, and not modified by other governmental agencies.
- CNN's Ted Barrett, Dan Lothian, Eric Fiegel, Gregory Wallace and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.