Republican and Democratic lawmakers sharply disagreed Sunday over whether and to what extent the Obama administration soft-pedaled its initial public explanation of the Sept. 11 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
"I think it's very odd that the story line they chose omitted al-Qaida, which would help the president enormously" three weeks before a hotly contested election in which President Barack Obama claimed to have vanquished the terrorist group, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The White House, Graham suggested on NBC's "Meet the Press," "would withhold information to prevent [Obama] from looking bad."
Democrats called that charge unfounded and countercharged that Republican criticism surrounding the Benghazi incident was politically motivated from the outset. The issue "was stoked up because it was indeed in the midst of a presidential campaign," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
All sides concurred that security had been inadequate at the Benghazi site, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other officials were killed, and that investigations and hearings were needed to get to the bottom of the matter and prevent similar incidents in the future.
Views also coincided on the patriotism of former CIA director David Petraeus and that his resignation after revelations of an extramarital affair was regrettable but necessary.
But even with that issue, the still-sensitive matter of the presidential election resonated nearly two weeks after voters gave Obama a second-term victory.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House intelligence committee, indicated that Obama might have known about the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus's departure long before he has said he did. The White House and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have said that Clapper was informed by the Justice Department on Election Day, that Clapper told Obama's senior staff the next day, Nov. 7, and that the staff told Obama on Nov. 8.
"I'm not sure the president was not told before Election Day," Rogers said on NBC. "The attorney general said that . . . the Department of Justice, did not notify the president [earlier], but we don't know if the attorney general [did]."
Asked to clarify what "Meet the Press" host David Gregory called the "news" that Obama might have known earlier than the White House has indicated, Rogers said: "I didn't say that. I said I didn't know."
Later in the day, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called Roger's comment "partisan speculation" and said it was "unwarranted and simply untrue. As FBI and Justice Department officials have briefed Congress — and as the attorney general has said — this investigation was handled the way these types of matters are routinely handled" in order to protect privacy and prevent political contamination. "The director of national intelligence was the appropriate entity notified at the appropriate time," Schmaler said.
Disagreement ranged across the Sunday talk shows on the question of whether the administration had intervened to excise references to al-Qaida involvement in the CIA's assessment of the Benghazi attack when it offered its first lengthy public explanation of the incident.
In closed-door testimony to the congressional intelligence committees two days after the attack, Petraeus had described terrorist involvement, including by groups associated with al-Qaida. But on Sept. 16, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in five separate television interviews that the "best information we have at present" was that the Benghazi attack began as a "spontaneous reaction" to a demonstration the same day in Cairo, where protesters had gathered around the U.S. Embassy to denounce an anti-Muslim Internet video that was privately produced in the United States.
Rice referred to "extremist" involvement in the attack but made no mention of al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.
Nearly a week later, the administration publicly labeled Benghazi a terrorist attack, leading some Republicans to allege an election-related coverup and to blame Rice for complicity or incompetence. Graham and others have said they will not approve her confirmation if Obama nominates her as his next secretary of state.
The White House and intelligence officials have said the terrorist assessment offered by Petraeus was both classified and still tenuous and that to reveal it at the time of Rice's interviews would have compromised their secret sources of information.
"The narrative was wrong, and why that's important — this isn't just about parsing words and who was right — there were some policy decisions made based on the narrative that was not consistent with the intelligence that we had," Rogers said. He said he believed that Rice's version came after changes in the wording of her talking points were made without CIA approval by the "deputies committee" of second-level administration officials.
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., appearing with Rogers, said: "The allegation that the White House changed those talking points, that is false. So there was only one thing that was changed — and I've checked into this, I believe it to be an absolute fact — and that was the word 'consulate' [in Benghazi] was changed to 'mission.' That's the only change that anyone in the White House made."
She said her committee had decided that "this whole process is going to be checked out. We are going to find out who made changes in the original statement. Until we do, I really think it's unwarranted to make accusations."
Senior intelligence officials have expressed some exasperation at suggestions they were rolled over by the White House, pointing out that they have at least three seats on the deputies committee, including representatives of the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department, and that they had prepared the unclassified assessment that was vetted and later presented by Rice.
"The unclassified talking points were drafted by CIA" and "were reviewed by CIA leadership and coordinated . . . at a senior level" with no political pressure, one senior intelligence official said.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.