The former acting director of the CIA, in his first public testimony on Benghazi, confirmed that he ignored guidance from the top CIA officer on the ground in favor of reporting from analysts far removed from the scene, in shaping the flawed “talking points” which said the attack sprung from a protest.
Mike Morell, who served as both deputy and acting director of the agency, is under increasing scrutiny over his role in forming the administration’s public narrative about the attack — a narrative which inaccurately blamed a protest from the outset. Morell is accused of heavily editing the so-called “talking points,” which were the basis for then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s controversial comments on several Sunday shows after the attacks that also blamed a protest.
Morell, speaking before the House Intelligence Committee, insisted Wednesday he did not “deliberately” downplay the role of terrorists in that attack. He also said he never knew Rice was going to appear on the Sunday shows the weekend after the attack.
But he did confirm that he overruled guidance from the CIA chief of station in Libya that the attacks were “not/not an escalation of protests.”
Morell, explaining his decision, effectively challenged the evidence his chief of station brought to the table in his message, sent via email a few days after the attack. He said the claim that there was no protest was based only on “press reports” and reports from officers who arrived in Benghazi after the attack had already started.
He said that basis was not “compelling” enough.
Still, Morell explained that when he received the email from the CIA chief of station, he recognized the “discrepancy” between what he was saying and what other analysts were saying. He said he quickly had his analysts “revisit their judgment” that a protest was underway — but “based on a totality of the information available to them, they stuck with their initial conclusions.”
The testimony was met with skepticism in some corners. One source who was on the ground in Benghazi that night questioned the claims.
“Why would he ever believe that people who weren’t there hold credence [over] those of us that were…and even his own respected Chief of Station?” the source said. “It [makes] no sense.”
Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., repeatedly pressed Morell on the flawed talked points and accused the administration of using them for political purposes.
“The talking points did not reflect the best information available. They did not mention that Al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved in the attacks, though briefings and intelligence reports assessed they were involved,” Rogers said. “The talking points suggested that there had been a demonstration … when there had been none and the officers on the ground said so.”
He continued: “I must conclude that the White House used your talking points to [perpetuate] its own misguided political agenda.
“I believe that the White House wanted America to believe Al Qaeda to be on the run, and thus they needed the attacks to be in response to an anti-Islamic video. And so the White House used your talking points to say so.”
Morell, though, said nobody at the CIA “deliberately misled” Congress about the attack.
“We did not deliberately downplay the role of terrorists in the Benghazi attack,” he testified before the House Intelligence Committee, in a rare open session.
He said the suggestion that he made edits for the political benefit of the administration is “false.” And he explained that, from the start, he considered the attack to have been both a protest and a terrorist attack.
After the hearing ended, some lawmakers continued to raise questions about Morell’s testimony — and particularly the decision to ignore the chief of station’s guidance.
“What is most troubling is that the CIA Chief of Station in Libya repeatedly informed Washington that no demonstration ever occurred in Benghazi on the day of the attack, and that his views were consistently disregarded and overruled by CIA officials in Washington, including Mr. Morell,” said a statement from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. “The Chief of Station was the agency’s senior leader on the ground during the terrorist attack in Benghazi, so it is unfathomable why his views were not taken more seriously.”
In another curious moment during the hearing, Morell claimed he deleted references to terrorism warnings from the talking points to avoid the spy agency’s gloating at the expense of the State Department.
Morell said the CIA knew that some of the individuals involved in the attack were Al Qaeda from classified sources, information that couldn’t be included unless it was declassified. The talking points were provided to members of the committee for dissemination to the American people.
Morell said he removed references to the warnings based on previous CIA analysis. Otherwise, he said, the talking points would have been 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.
The former CIA boss also fielded questions about Beacon Global Strategies, the firm he later went to work for, and Washington’s revolving door. The company is led by people close to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the former staff director for the intelligence committee.
Morell said his first discussions with the company about working for them began in November, four months after he left his job.
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge and Adam Housley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.