David Petraeus, the disgraced former CIA director, waded into the political row over the Benghazi attacks yesterday (Friday), supporting White House claims that it did not knowingly mislead the public over who was responsible.
A week after being forced to resign over an extramarital affair, Petraeus said that he did not believe the White House had "politicised" the fallout from the attacks on Sept 11, according to a member of Congress present at a closed-door hearing.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of lying about the killings in the run-up to this month's US election to avoid political flak over the intelligence failures that led to the death of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. However, Adam Schiff, a Democrat member of the House intelligence committee, said Petraeus had supported Obama's repeated assurances that the public had been provided with the best available information at the time.
"The general was adamant there was no politicisation of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," Schiff said after the 90-minute testimony. "He completely debunked that idea."
Republicans have cited television interviews given by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, five days after the attacks in which she still blamed them on spontaneous mob violence caused by the release of an anti-Islam video. This conflicted with early CIA intelligence reports - that were subsequently confirmed - that the attacks were, in fact, a targeted operation by a local al-Qaeda-linked militant group, Ansar al-Sharia.
Petraeus told the hearing that he had known very quickly it was a terrorist attack, and that CIA assessment had referred to it as such, but - crucially - the reference to terrorism had been removed from the "talking points" received by Rice.
According to Schiff, the committee was told by Petraeus that Rice's comments in the television interviews had "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly". "There was an inter-agency process to draft it, not a political process," Schiff added, to explain why references to terrorism had been dropped. "They came up with the best assessment without compromising classified information or source or methods. So changes were made to protect classified information."
After the hearing, Republicans said that many questions still remained unanswered, pointing out that Petraeus had been unable to clarify who was responsible for removing the references to terrorism from the briefing documents used by Rice.
Television crews that had gathered to catch a first glimpse of Petraeus since his resignation were left disappointed, after he entered through a side door and used an underground tunnel to reach the hearing room without being seen.