The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is demanding an immediate explanation from the nation’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, for what the chairman says were inconsistent statements to Congress and to the public on who was behind changes to the CIA talking points on the Libya consulate attack in September.
Critics say the Obama administration initially minimized the role of terrorism despite evidence of a coordinated attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the assault.
Testimony last week on Capitol Hill raised additional questions about the administration's changing story on the attack, putting new pressure on Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Intelligence Committee chairman, "looks forward to discussing this new explanation with Director Clapper as soon as possible to understand how (his office) reached this conclusion and why leaders of the intelligence community testified late last week that they were unaware of who changed the talking points," Rogers spokeswoman Susan Phalen told Fox News.
Fox News was told by one source that Clapper, in a classified session on Thursday, was “unequivocal, and without hesitation insisted the changes were made outside the Intelligence community. He didn’t know who but was emphatic he would find out."
A day later, former CIA Director David Petraeus also stated changes were made after his agency drafted the talking points, adding no one imagined how changing the language would end up being such a big deal.
But late Monday night, Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner said in a series of briefings for reporters that the intelligence community was solely responsible for “substantive” changes to the talking points, which were finalized on Sept. 15 – four days after the attack and one day before U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s controversial appearance on five Sunday talk shows, when she described the attack as spontaneous violence that grew out of protests of an anti-Islam film.
Along with changing “al Qaeda” to “extremists,” the new talking points timeline stated the FBI apparently wanted a change in the language from the U.S. “knew” Islamic extremists were involved to “there are indications.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News the timeline reinforces his view the changes were driven by security considerations, not politics.
"To anyone who was listening, it was clear from General Petraeus and other intelligence officials who testified last week that the talking points were amended to protect classified sources of information and were not subject to any political spin by the White House or ambassador to the U.N.,” Schiff said.
John Bolton, a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the George W. Bush administration, said Clapper must now explain the genesis of the administration’s initial statements, which blamed a video for sparking a demonstration that was hijacked by terrorists, when the available and immediate raw intelligence strongly supported a pre-meditated terrorist attack.
“I think Clapper has to say publicly whether he advocated the YouTube video theory, whether he pressed it on the White House and others in the intelligence community," Bolton told Fox News. "And if so, did he do that at the direction of the White House?”
The new timeline on the talking points – released by Clapper’s office - does not address another inconsistency, first reported by the Daily Beast. After the Sept. 11 attack, diplomatic security agents were evacuated from the Benghazi consulate to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. By Sept. 14, two days before Rice’s Sunday show appearances and one day before the talking points were finalized, the FBI had learned from consulate agents that there was no demonstration when the attack unfolded. This single data point appeared to gut the administration’s anti-video protest theory.
Fox News asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for specifics on the timeline, as well as for comment on Rep. Rogers' claims, but calls and emails were not immediately returned.
A Capitol Hill source who asked not to be identified, given the sensitive nature of the topic, noted this seemed to be the second time Clapper’s office had “fallen on its sword” in the Benghazi matter. On Sept. 28, in a statement released late in the day, spokesman Turner explained their “evolving” understand of the assault. Turner said the initial view, that the attack spontaneously grew out of a protest of the anti-Islam video, was now abandoned, and the evidence supported a “deliberate and organized terrorist assault.”
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.