The timing of the CIA’s conclusion has become a contentious issue in Congress, where some prominent Republicans have charged that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President Obama’s leading candidate to become secretary of state, knowingly presented a whitewashed account in television appearances on Sept. 16.
Reading from administration talking points, Rice hewed to the “spontaneous” theory, saying that the attack began as a protest against an anti-Islamic video that was privately produced in the United States and was hijacked
by “opportunistic extremist
elements.” In the television interviews, she said this was the “best information” available, but stressed that the matter was under investigation.
Petraeus, who has not appeared in public since he resigned last week after revelations of an extramarital affair, avoided a swarm of reporters and photographers awaiting his arrival for the early morning hearings held in secret briefing rooms three floors underground in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
“You can blame it on us. We wanted to spare him,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate panel, told reporters after Petraeus had left.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said the House panel had only briefly discussed the former general’s affair with former Army officer Paula Broadwell and that Petraeus had assured them his resignation related only to that and not to the Benghazi attack.
“He realizes what he’s done [to] himself, and to the CIA,” King told Fox News. “He apologized, but once he got into his testimony, he was the same old General Petraeus.”
According to accounts provided by intelligence officials, the CIA concluded early on that Benghazi was a terrorist attack by definition, because any assault on a U.S. government installation with heavy weapons and substantial firepower could not be classified otherwise. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
In the swirl of initial reporting about the attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, two accounts made their way into the first round of analysis, the officials said. Reports from the ground in Libya described a demonstration at the Benghazi mission, similar to a large
anti-U.S. protest the same day outside the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.