WASHINGTON — The former deputy director of the CIA insisted on Wednesday that he didn't edit the widely debunked talking points on the 2012 Benghazi attack due to political pressure to protect President Barack Obama and onetime Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a rare open session, Mike Morell offered a lengthy defense of his actions and the work of the spy agency in the politically-charged aftermath of the Sept. 11 assault on the diplomatic mission in Libya. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in two separate terror attacks over a chaotic period of several hours.
Responding to questions, Morell, who served six presidents, Republicans and Democrats, during a 33-year career with the CIA, was even more emphatic.
"I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did. Never," he said.
Morell deleted references to extremist threats linked to al-Qaida in versions of the talking points that were used by Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a series of Sunday talk show appearances. Morell said his actions were driven by the information provided by intelligence community analysts and the Defense Department.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of trying to mislead the American people about an act of terrorism in the heat of the presidential campaign.
The State Department, intelligence community and the White House were involved in crafting the talking points. Morell testified that the White House made only editorial changes to the talking points and no substantive revisions.
Four days after the attack, Morell edited the talking points to remove references to multiple CIA analyses about threats from extremists tied to al-Qaida in Benghazi and eastern Libya, and five other attacks since April. In its place, Morell added a sentence saying, "there are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
Morell testified he thought it was inappropriate for the CIA to call attention to its warnings in talking points that would be disseminated to the public.
He said it was a "way for CIA to pound its chest and say 'we warned,' laying all the blame on the State Department." Morell said there would be plenty of time later on to figure out what went wrong.
In his prepared testimony, Morell said he was deeply troubled by allegations made by lawmakers and some in the media "that I inappropriately altered and influenced CIA's classified analysis and its unclassified talking points about what happened in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 and that I covered up those actions."
"These allegations accuse me of taking these actions for the political benefit of President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton. These allegations are false," Morell said.
He said he and the agency could have done a better job, but he dismissed suggestions that the CIA "cooked the books" in the assessment of the attack.
The intelligence community's talking points, compiled for members of Congress, suggested the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests in Cairo and elsewhere over an anti-Islamic video rather than an assault by extremists. Five days after the attack, Rice relied on the talking points.
Rice described the attack as a "horrific incident where some mob was hijacked, ultimately, by a handful of extremists."
Morell said he had no idea that Rice would use the talking points on the Sunday shows.
Morell described his step-by-step actions, from the first time he saw the talking points on Friday, the 14th, to his concerns about the inclusion of warning language. He said an intelligence analyst on the 13th had said the attack evolved spontaneously from a protest.
Morell said he believed his analyst that there had been a protest but he also believed it was a terrorist attack. He said he never considered them mutually exclusive.
A year and a half after the assault, multiple congressional committees and an independent review have investigated and reported on the attacks, largely faulting the State Department for a lack of security at the diplomatic mission. The hearing underscored that the attack remains highly politicized, with no signs of abating as Clinton is frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the committee, said the White House used the talking points "to perpetuate its own misguided political agenda."
"The White House wants to ignore reality and perpetuate the fallacy that al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists are on the verge of defeat," Rogers said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., complained about a "partisan smear campaign."
The panel's top Democrat, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland bemoaned the fact that months after the attack, Congress was still discussing the talking points when the focus should be on catching those who carried out the attacks.
His voice rising, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., defended the congressional investigations, saying he wants retribution for the killing of four Americans and even wants to "pull the switch" on the attackers.
He angrily complained that the perpetrators have not been caught and remain at large "sipping mai-tais."
Morell said he agreed with the congressman. "Nobody wants to bring these guys to justice more than I," he said.