WASHINGTON - The CIA told the White House that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a terror attack by an al-Qaeda linked group, but the assessment was altered by Obama administration officials, Gen. David Petraeus told the House Intelligence Committee.
Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director a week ago over an extra-marital affair, said he knew that the attack was not sparked by a protest over an anti-Islam video, as White House officials and President Obama had said for days after the Sept. 11 attack, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
"The original talking points put out by the CIA were different from what was later put out," King said. "Petraeus says his initial assessment was from the start it was a terrorist attack."
However, King said Petraeus didn't know why al-Qaeda involvement was taken out of the talking points.
"It's still not clear how the talking points emerged," King said. "No one knows yet who came up with the final talking points."
But the CIA eventually approved the modified assessment, King said Petraeus told the committee. Why the CIA approved the talking points, which were made public by US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and others, and who was involved in making the changes, King did not say.
King said Petraeus didn't know why al-Qaeda involvement was taken out of the talking points. King said information about the possible impact of the anti-Islam film "was part of the information intelligence analysts were getting at the time."
The White House assessment was derived through an interagency process that included the State Department, FBI and the National Security Council, King said.
According to John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, the inter-agency process involves the heads of the CIA, State Department, FBI and others who provide the White House an assessment of intelligence on an event. The White House then can edit the assessment, he told Fox News.
King said the hard assessment of Petraeus that al-Qaeda terrorists conducted the attack was replaced with "indications of extremist elements." Bolton suggested the White House softened the language and it would not be unusual that Petraeus and other cabinet heads were unaware of it.
Talking points that included the claim that the attack arose out of a protest that never happened were given to Rice, he said.
Petraeus' testimony appears to be at odds with what he told the committee Sept. 14, three days after the attack, King said. Petraeus reportedly said then that the video may have sparked a protest outside the consulate that turned violent.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad said much of this confusion stems from what was known but classified information at the time, to protect sources and methods, and what was unclassified.
"What is available in a classified way may be different from what is available in an unclassified way," Conrad, a Democrat, said. "It's clear that Susan Rice used unclassified talking points that were agreed to by the entire intelligence community... as reflecting their unclassified view at the moment she used those talking points."
There was further evidence available to the White House that no protest had taken place at the consulate, a fact the White House admitted more than a week after the attack. A video shown Thursday to lawmakers investigating the attack made it clear that it was always an organized terror attack, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"It was very clear from day one that this was a terrorist attack," Chambliss told Fox News. "This would be obvious to anyone. That is very clear."
The claim from the White House that al-Qaeda was not involved in the attack came days after the Democratic National Convention that nominated Obama for another term and during which Vice President Biden and others gave televised speeches lauding the president for crushing al-Qaeda throughout the world.
Bolton said the White House may have found it "politically inconvenient" two months before an election to expose "errors and fallacies" of Obama's claims about al-Qaeda.
Five days after the attack, Rice was dispatched by Obama to say the attack was a spontaneous spate of violence that emerged from a protest outside the consulate, and she said repeatedly it was not a terrorist attack.
Rice said protesters were demonstrating against an anti-Islam video produced in the United States, and both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama echoed that claim.
The State Department has since said that there was no protest and the White House has admitted the attack was a well-organized assault by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Obama has defended Rice and his administration's handling of the Benghazi attack.
He said at a news conference this week that Rice was repeating the scenarios provided to her by administration intelligence experts. He said all that could be done at the time was done.
Chambliss said he was skeptical of that claim.
"She was saying exactly what the political shop at the White House told her to say," Chambliss said.