By KIMBERLY DOZIER and NEDRA PICKLER
WASHINGTON - Testifying out of sight, ex-CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress Friday that classified intelligence showed the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but the administration withheld the suspected role of al-Qaida affiliates to avoid tipping them off.
The recently resigned spy chief explained that references to terrorist groups suspected of carrying out the violence were removed from the public explanation of what caused the attack so as not to alert them that U.S. intelligence was on their trail, according to lawmakers who attended Petraeus' private briefings.
He also said it initially was unclear whether the militants had infiltrated a demonstration to cover their attack.
The retired four-star general addressed the House and Senate intelligence committees in back-to-back, closed-door hearings as questions persist over what the Obama administration knew in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and why its public description did not match intelligence agencies' assessments.
After the hearings, lawmakers who questioned Petraeus said he testified that the CIA's draft talking points in response to the assault on the diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. Petraeus said that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn't sure which federal agency deleted it.
Adding to the explanation, a senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the points said later that a reason the references to al-Qaida were deleted was that the information came from classified sources and the links were, and still are, tenuous. The administration also did not want to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages, that official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the process publicly.
Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not done for political reasons during President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
"The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "He completely debunked that idea."
But Republicans remain critical of the administration's handling of the case. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Petraeus' testimony showed that "clearly the security measures were inadequate despite an overwhelming and growing amount of information that showed the area in Benghazi was dangerous, particularly on the night of Sept. 11."
In fact, Petraeus told lawmakers that protesters literally walked in and set fire to the facility, according to a congressional official who attended the briefing. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens died from smoke inhalation. Petraeus said security at the CIA annex was much better, but the attackers had armaments to get in.
Separately on Friday, the Democratic leader in the Senate rejected a request from John McCain and two other senators for a Watergate-style congressional committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. In a letter to McCain, Sen. Harry Reid said several committees in the House and Senate are already investigating and he would not allow the Senate to be used as a "venue for baseless partisan attacks." Republican House Speaker John Boehner also said this week that a special committee was not necessary.
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but that those names were replaced with the word "extremist" in the final draft, according to a congressional staff member. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said Petraeus explained that the CIA's draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including him, and everyone signed off on it.
"The assessment that was publicly shared in unclassified talking points went through a process of editing," Udall said. "The extremist description was put in because in an unclassified document you want to be careful who you identify as being involved."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said it remained unclear how the final talking points developed. The edited version was used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her out for a series of television interviews. Republicans have criticized Rice for saying it appeared the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.
"The fact is, the reference to al-Qaida was taken out somewhere along the line by someone outside the intelligence community," King said. "We need to find out who did it and why."
King said Petraeus had briefed the House committee on Sept. 14, and he did not recall Petraeus being so positive at that time that it was a terrorist attack. "He thought all along that he made it clear there was terrorist involvement," King said. "That was not my recollection."
The unclassified talking points reflected what the CIA "believed at that point in time," said the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue. "The points were reviewed by CIA leadership and coordinated in the interagency at a senior level. The points 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. There were legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly."
It remained unclear, however, why the CIA and the administration said there was a protest outside the consulate when Libya's interim president and local witnesses were saying none had taken place, and administration officials said at first that they couldn't confirm there was one.
Administration officials eventually conceded there was no protest and that the assaults appeared to involve militants from a local Islamist group, Ansar al Shariah, and others linked to al-Qaida's North Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Many lawmakers' post-hearing comments focused on Rice's treatment.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., lambasted Rice's critics, saying, "You don't pillory the person and select Ambassador Rice because she used an unclassified talking point to say she is unqualified to be secretary of state.
"The way it keeps going, it's almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character," Feinstein continued.
Feinstein read the unclassified talking points, the first of which said "currently available information" suggested that spontaneous protests in Benghazi inspired by anti-video demonstrations in Cairo "evolved into a direct assault against the United States diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex."
"There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations," it continued, with the next point saying the assessment could change as new information was collected.
"Now as I understand the process, the CIA prepares additional talking points, which then go through the various components of the intelligence community, and those components either sign off on them, discuss them, and I believe the intelligence community signed off on these talking points," Feinstein said.
Republicans said they still had questions about the attacks. They included why the State Department hadn't strengthened security at the consulate and annex given that Libyan authorities had been unable to curb escalating violence by Islamist groups and militias that refused to disband after overthrowing the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
"The State Department did not take adequate measures to protect personnel," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "We need to find out more. Clearly the security measures were not adequate."