Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers in a closed door hearing last week that the CIA’s original assessment on the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack was that it was carried out by al Qaeda affiliated groups. But he reportedly said that analysis was later taken out after an interagency review in favor of a more general assessment that “extremists” carried out the attack to broaden the scope and not tip off terrorists to U.S. knowledge on the matter. And despite the fact that Petraeus said the CIA approved the change, Republicans, led by Republican senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Kelly Ayotte (NH), have accused the White House of stripping the language for political reasons.
But Shawn Turner, the spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, told CNN that it wasn’t the White House’s decision:
“The intelligence community made substantive, analytical changes before the talking points were sent to government agency partners for their feedback. There were no substantive changes made to the talking points after they left the intelligence community.”
Another anonymous intelligence official echoed Turner, saying that the changes were made based on legitimate intelligence and for legal purposes:
“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.”
Indeed, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told the New York Times last week that in his closed door briefing, Petraeus “was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda.”
The fight over the talking points will most likely continue; it has even become a campaign cause for Republican senators like Lindsey Graham. Others like John McCain have vowed to do “everything” to block the potential nomination of Susan Rice for Secretary of State. But Democrats in Congress and media commentators are beginning to wonder why Republicans are picking a substance-free fight with Rice, a woman and an African-American, after the drubbing they took in last month’s elections among those demographics.