The CIA's former deputy director told the House intelligence committee Wednesday politics played no role in his decision to believe CIA analysts in Washington rather than his station chief in Benghazi about whether a fictitious protest preceded an attack that killed four Americans.
Mike Morell, now retired from the CIA, said the Benghazi station chief contacted him three times the week of the attack to lay out reasons he believed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack was a preplanned terror attack and not a protest gone out of control.
The station chief sent a detailed email Sept. 15, the day before Susan Rice said on Sunday talk shows that the attack evolved from a spontaneous protest. The White House has since admitted the protest never happened and it was a terrorist attack.
Morell deleted references to extremist threats linked to al-Qaeda in versions of the talking points and said his he did so because he believed the information provided by intelligence community analysts and the Defense Department over the CIA's own station chief in Libya.
"I shared the email with the analysts, they stuck by their judgment," Morell testified. "I believed what the analysts said. I also believed it was a terrorist attack."
Questioners on the House panel asked how he could believe it was both a protest gone awry and a planned terror attack. He said they were not "mutually exclusive."
Morell did not name the analysts, or detail what specific information the analysts used to base the faulty conclusion over the accurate report of the CIA's station chief in Libya. He said the first version of the talking points were produced Sept. 12, a day after the attack, by the agency's top terrorism analyst. The analyst had seen about a dozen press and intelligence reports that a protest preceded the attack, he said.
On Sept. 13, the CIA's station chief sent an email saying the analyst was wrong, but Morell said he dismissed the station chief's objections because it too was based in part on press reports. It was also based on reporting by a rescue team that arrived at the diplomatic post about an hour after the attack.
Morell said the analyst thought any protest would have broken up that long after the attack began. "It's not an unreasonable thing to think," Morell said.
Republicans accuse the Obama administration of trying to mislead the American people in the weeks before the 2012 presidential election so as not to ruin a campaign theme that Obama had al-Qaeda on the run.
Morell insisted that he was not involved in any deliberate obfuscation nor did he know of anyone who was at the White House.
"I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did. Never," he said.
Much of the questioning and Morell's testimony focused on Morell's role in the production of flawed talking points given to Rice before she appeared on television and blamed the attack on an anti-Islam video.
"The White House needed the talking points to support their narrative that al-Qaeda was on the run," said Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, the committee's Republican chairman. "They needed these talking points to say the attack was in response to a video."
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, said the committee reviewed thousands of documents related to the attack, viewed videos and interviewed tens of witnesses, and proved nothing nefarious about how the talking points were produced.
"Today we've found no inappropriate motivations and we have also found no inappropriate actions on the talking points," Ruppersberger said. "We have four dead American. We need to focus at this point on tracking down the people who did this. And I hope we're close to that."
The attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans happened on the 11th anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. They lasted over several hours but involved three phases of violence, according to reports by the State Department and several Congressional committees that investigated what happened.
The attack began on a quiet night outside the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, then after a rescue team moved U.S. personnel to a CIA facility a short distance away, and a few hours later, when that facility was struck by deadly mortar fire.
Some questioned Morell's actions and noted that then-director of the CIA Gen. David Petraeus considered the talking points that resulted "useless."
"It looks like you're more interested in protecting the State Department than the State department is, like you're more interested in protecting the FBI than the FBI," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex. "And Petraeus is upset that there's not enough information there."
Morell responded: "I saw this as a way for the CIA to pump its chest to say we warned and therefore lay all the blame on the State Department."