David Petraeus, who stepped down from his post as CIA director after the revelation of an extramarital affair, testified on Friday morning at a closed-door congressional hearing about the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
He told lawmakers that he believed all along the deadly attack was “a terrorist attack,” according to Peter King, a Republican representative on the House intelligence committee.
“He also stated that he thought all along he made it clear that there were significant terrorist involvement, and that is not my recollection of what he told us on Sept. 14,” King said.
Lawmakers say Petraeus told them that CIA talking points written after the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus said that reference was removed by other federal agencies that made changes to the CIA’s draft.
The attack killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
His testimony came one day after intelligence officials showed legislators a real-time film of the deadly attack and discussed a timeline of events in sometimes heated closed-door exchanges. The intelligence committees heard from intelligence, FBI and State Department officials.
Questions about the adequacy of security, the US response to the attack, and the administration’s initial public comments have led to a growing rift between Republicans and president Barack Obama over where the fault lies.
After Petraeus resigned, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, had been the most vocal legislator insisting the former CIA chief should still testify to Congress about the Benghazi attack.
She said the film on the attack included video from a Predator drone.
“The film is a composite from a number of sources. It is real-time, it does begin from when the incident, before the incident started, and it goes through the incident and the exodus,” Feinstein told reporters before the hearing.
The 60-year-old retired general is not expected to face charges, but FBI agents seized a trove of documents from the home of his mistress, 40-year-old Paula Broadwell, and may act if she improperly received classified material. Petraeus has said he never passed secret documents to his lover.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of providing misinformation in the early days following the attack.
Administration officials counter that their initial comments, suggesting the attack grew spontaneously out of protests over an anti-Muslim film rather than a premeditated strike, were based on the best available information at that time.
Senior Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have threatened to block any nomination of Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, for her comments on Sunday talk shows five days after the attack in which she suggested it had been a spontaneous event.
Obama came to Rice’s defence on Wednesday and said if she was the right person for a spot in his Cabinet, he would nominate her. If Republicans have a problem with the handling of Benghazi, he said, “they should go after me”.
‘Mistakes were made’
Rice is considered a potential candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who has said she plans to leave -or for another top job in the administration.
Clinton is expected to testify before Congress about the Benghazi attack only after a State Department initiated review is completed – possibly in December.
“In the end, the assessment was still the same – that in Benghazi, you had a group of extremists who took advantage of a situation, and unfortunately we lost four American lives,” Representative CA Dutch Ruppersberger said after Thursday’s intelligence hearing in the House.
Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he planned to ask the former CIA chief: “General Petraeus, did your resignation have anything to do with the fact that you were supposed to testify before Congress?”
Critics say the US State Department did not respond to requests from diplomats on the ground in Libya who sought greater security before the attack.
“We know mistakes were made and we’ve got to learn from that. Our membership asked some very hard and very tough questions of our witnesses today and we’re going to continue to do that in our subsequent hearings,” Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said.