House members on Wednesday grilled a former CIA official over allegations of a cover-up in the administration's messaging after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi.
Michael Morell, the deputy director of the agency at the time, stressed that politics or an alleged attempt to mislead Congress and the public didn't influence his editing of talking points or his view of the CIA's analysis.
"Let me emphasize again: There is no truth to the allegations that the CIA or I 'cooked the books' with regard to what happened in Benghazi and then tried to cover this up after the fact," he said in written testimony, adding in a House Intelligence Committee hearing that "I never allowed politics to influence what I said."
Lawmakers dug into why administration officials said publicly—and in unclassified talking points given to congressional committees—in the days after the attack that it sprang from a spontaneous protest. CIA analysts later concluded that it was a deliberate, coordinated terrorist attack.
Members pointed to emails from the CIA's station chief in Benghazi that showed he believed as early as Sept. 15 that there had not been a protest. Lawmakers on Wednesday criticized Morell for not including the station chief's concerns in the classified interagency documents.
Morell said the CIA's analysts, who were collecting information from intelligence and press reports, disagreed with the station chief's assessment. Morell did not believe at the time that the station chief's reasons for disagreeing with the analyst's findings were substantive enough. Analysts revised their findings on Sept. 22 to say that they now believed based on new information that there wasn't a protest.
Morell also deleted references to Islamic extremism in the unclassified talking points, which were also used by then-U.N. Representative Susan Rice on the Sunday shows. Morell said that while Rice had access to the body of intelligence work done up to that point, the station chief's concerns would not have been included, because that document wasn't shared outside of the CIA.
But he added that he did give a "heads up" at a Deputies Committee meeting—which included participants from a handful of agencies—that the station chief disagreed with the assessment that there was a protest.
The CIA also removed references to al-Qaida from the talking points. Morell said that he also removed language that the agency had previously warned about security threats in Libya to avoid having the CIA appear as if it were trying to exonerate itself in the attack.
"What I'm puzzled by as you look at those edits that you made, you take out most of the words that are in the talking points," Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas said. "… To me it seems like you're more interested in protecting the State Department than the State Department is. You are more interested in protecting the FBI than the FBI is.… That doesn't make sense to me."
Morell admitted that his edits were not the CIA's best work, adding that "there are things we should have done differently, there are areas where the CIA's performance, and my own performance, could have been better."
But Republican members cast doubt on his testimony, suggesting that he made edits to protect the White House. GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who is running to be the next committee chairman, said, "The problem is you've got all these conflicting stories."
And Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is also interested in the committee chairmanhip, added: "We have to believe an awful lot of circumstances to believe your version with totality."
But committee Democrats tried to steer the hearing toward focusing on the need to capture the militants behind the attacks.
"We have only found evidence that the talking points were edited to ensure accuracy, to check classification, and to safeguard the investigation and eventual prosecution—which has to be our ultimate goal: finding and holding accountable those who committed this terrible act," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.
Multiple committee reports, including one by the House Intelligence Committee, have largely blamed the White House and the State Department for failing to respond to increasing security risks within Libya leading up to the 2012 attack which left four Americans dead.