* CIA says it took out al Qaeda reference
* "Never any effort or intent to mislead or deceive..."
(Updates with intelligence official comment, details)
WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - When U.S. intelligence
officials testified behind closed doors two weeks ago, they were
asked point blank whether they had altered the talking points on
which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice based her comments about the
Benghazi attacks that have turned into a political firestorm.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA
Director Michael Morell and National Counterterrorism Center
Director Matthew Olsen each said no, according to two
congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The next day, Nov. 16, former CIA director David Petraeus
testified before the same congressional intelligence committees
and also replied no to the question of whether he had changed
the talking points, three congressional sources said.
The CIA on Tuesday told lawmakers that it had in fact
changed the wording of the unclassified talking points to delete
a reference to al Qaeda, according to senators who met with
Morell on Tuesday. It appeared to be the first time that the CIA
acknowledged it was the agency that made that change,
congressional sources said.
"There was never any effort or intent to mislead or deceive.
This was a complicated and imperfect coordination process, and
no single person had all the information on the edits," a senior
U.S. intelligence official said. "At the end of that process,
however, the final version was signed off on by all the
appropriate people at CIA and throughout the interagency."
Officials pointed out that the top intelligence officials
would not necessarily have known when every edit to the talking
points were made along the way.
At the Nov. 15 hearing, Morell and Clapper were asked how
each of the edits to the talking points were made, they each
answered they did not know, but agreed to look into the editing
and coordination process, officials said.
Petraeus a day later told lawmakers he had OK'd the final
version of the talking points, which did not include the
reference to al Qaeda, officials said.
The Obama administration's shifting explanations of who
changed the talking points - which were the basis for its early,
flawed public explanation of the attacks in Libya - have fueled
Republican anger, and could prevent Rice, and maybe even Morell,
from getting promotions.
"This is the fourth story about who changed the talking
points and the third reason why - after all the agencies
appeared under oath and said, 'I don't know who changed the
talking points.' To say I'm disappointed, confused, is an
understatement," Senator Lindsey Graham, a le ading critic of the
White House's handling of Benghazi, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Rice has said she relied on the talking points from the
intelligence agencies when she did a round of Sunday talk shows
days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound
and a CIA base in Benghazi. In those appearances, she said the
violence arose spontaneously from a protest of an anti-Islam
film rather than a premeditated strike.
U.S. intelligence officials have since said that militants
with ties to al Qaeda affiliates were likely involved in the
attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other
Americans. In a statement on Tuesday, Rice acknowledged there
never had been a protest.
Republicans have criticized Rice's earlier comments as an
attempt by the administration to play down al Qaeda connections
to the attack ahead of the presidential elections, to avoid
denting President Barack Obama's image on fighting terrorism.
During the election campaign, Obama angrily denied that.
INTELLIGENCE CZAR REVIEW
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which
oversees the CIA and the other spy agencies, is reviewing who
made the changes to the talking points from the original set
that was drafted by the CIA on Sept. 14, congressional sources
On Nov. 1, two weeks before the top intelligence officials
testified at the closed-door hearings, congressional sources
said, a CIA staffer had told a staff-level meeting of the
congressional intelligence committees that the talking points
drafted by her unit were changed after leaving their hands,
leading to the early impression that the CIA had not been
involved in changing the original language.
The CIA staffer was unaware of edits made to the document at
the spy agency after it left her hands, other officials said. At
another meeting on Capitol Hill later in November, the staffer
clarified that al Qaeda was still in the version when it left
her hands and she concurred with the near final version that did
not include al Qaeda in it.
The initial draft referred to "attacks" carried out by
"extremists with ties to al Qaeda." But by the time Rice
received them before she went on the talk shows Sept. 16.,
"attacks" had changed to "demonstrations" and "with ties to al
Qaeda" had been deleted, multiple U.S. sources have said.
The question of who altered the talking points has been
repeatedly asked of the White House and intelligence agencies.
Deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes told
reporters onboard Air Force One en route to Thailand on Nov. 17
that the White House made only minor adjustments to the talking
points to change the reference to the diplomatic facility as a
"consulate" because it was not formally a consulate. "The only
edit ... made by the White House was the factual edit as to how
to refer to the facility," he said.
Because the question has become such a flashpoint, some
lawmakers who met with the CIA's Morell, who accompanied Rice to
Capitol Hill on Tuesday, were flabbergasted that he told them -
inaccurately - in their morning meeting that the FBI had altered
the wording. The CIA later corrected his statement.
"CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting
Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now
says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They
were unable to give a reason as to why," Graham and two other
Republican senators said in a statement on Tuesday.
"This was an honest mistake and it was corrected as soon as
it was realized. There is nothing more to this," an
intelligence official said about Morell's fumble.
A MORELL NOMINATION?
Graham has suggested he would hold up the nomination of
Morell if Obama nominates him to be the new CIA director, as
well as that of Rice if she is nominated to be Secretary of
State, because of the administration's response to the Benghazi
events. Morell and Rice are both believed to be on Obama's short
list for those jobs.
But Morell appears to be fairly popular on Capitol Hill.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Senate
Intelligence Committee, doubted that Morell's reported verbal
stumble on the talking points would disqualify him for a
promotion should Obama choose him.
"I'm not sure that in and of itself would keep him from ever
being confirmed," Chambliss told Reuters. The Senate must
approve such appointments.
"Mike was actually not the director when this (the attack on
Benghazi) took place. And he's kind of putting Humpty Dumpty
back together again," Chambliss added, calling Morell a "smart,
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Jeff Mason; Editing
by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)