The details about possible al-Qaeda involvement were not included in talking points initially used by both Petraeus and Rice because they were preliminary and were based on classified sources, intelligence officials said.
Critics of administration conduct have suggested that the White House excised any reference to terrorism for political reasons.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points said Friday that they “reflected what was known at the time” and “were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack.” In addition to concerns about classified sources, the official said, “when links were so tenuous — as they still are — it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions.”
The use of the word “extremists” by both Petraeus and Rice in the days after the attack, the official said, was “meant to capture the range of participants. The controversy this word choice caused came as a surprise.”
In addition to an internal State Department inquiry, several House and Senate committees are investigating what happened before, during and after the incident. In a sharply worded letter Friday to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others who have called for formation of a Watergate-style select committee, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that standing committees were fully capable of examining the issue.
Reid accused the advocates of a special committee of manipulating Congress “in service of partisan agendas.”
“The elections are over,” he wrote. “It is time to put an end to the partisan politicization of national security and begin working together to strengthen our efforts to dismantle and destroy the terrorist networks that threaten us.”
But Petraeus did not appear to provide any answers. The former CIA chief, King said, “clearly believes that [the attack] did not arise out of a demonstration, that it was not spontaneous and it was clear terrorist involvement.”
Democrats noted that this was hardly a revelation, and that it had been the administration’s public position since Sept. 19, three days after Rice’s interviews.
Petraeus’s testimony, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said, “completely debunked the conspiracy theory that this was some political machination coming out of the White House.”
Greg Miller contributed to this report.