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Report sheds light on ex-CIA deputy director's role in Benghazi talking points

The recently-released bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi sheds new light on the role of Michael Morell, the CIA's former deputy director, in the official “talking points” explanations put forward after the attack.

"I think, given what was said by him and others, and where they're headed, down the political road, would justify revisiting this issue," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News.

The Senate report states that on Sep. 15, 2012, four days after the attack and one day before U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows blaming the assault on a demonstration over a video, Morell and others at the CIA received a critical email that reported the attacks were "not/not an escalation of protests." Fox News was the first broadcast network to report there were no protests outside the consulate at the time of the attack on Sept. 17, 2012.

The email was from the CIA chief of station who was on the ground in Libya.

"The chief of station is the senior intelligence officer for the entire United States government," said Sam Faddis, who writes extensively about the CIA and intelligence community. "You would really have to have some incredibly overwhelming factual evidence to disregard that and there is no indication of that in the report at all."

Five former intelligence officials contacted by Fox News agreed with Faddis' assessment of the importance of the chief of station's email, but declined to speak on camera, citing personal reasons.

"The way the agency works, he's been running 24 hours a day to nail every fact, and probably they have been sending dozens of messages a day to Washington D.C.," Faddis said of the CIA station chief.

"And now he's reaching out four days into this, emailed directly to the most senior levels of his organization, saying again with the big red crayon as clearly as he can, there were no protests."

While the report does not explain when Morell read the email, it says that on the same day, September 15, he twice edited the talking points about the incident, excising about half the text-- including prior warnings to the State Department. 

The word "Islamic" was cut, but "demonstrations" stayed in.

The report goes on to explain that the next day, Sep. 16, the same day Susan Rice appeared on television, Morell then asked "CIA staff at Embassy Tripoli" for more information.

On Sep. 18, the CIA and FBI "reviewed the closed circuit television video from the mission facility that showed there were no protests prior to the attacks."

But on Sep. 20, in an interview with Univision, when pressed on the Benghazi attack and whether it was an Al Qaeda-led event, President Obama responded, "What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests."

Given the available intelligence, including the security video from the consulate that showed there was no protest, Graham questioned whether Morell or others in the intelligence community immediately updated the administration.

"Why didn't somebody correct the president? Within the system, who knew better? This is why you need a joint select committee," Graham said.

The bipartisan Senate report found that intelligence analysts stayed with the protest explanation "...without sufficient intelligence or eyewitness statements to corroborate that assertion. The IC (intelligence community) took too long to correct these erroneous reports..."

In Nov. 2012, at the height of the talking points controversy, Rice met with Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Graham. 

Graham said Rice did not mention Morell would be coming with her.

"He tried to defend her appearance on television, and tried to defend the fact that there was confusion about what happened in Benghazi, that there was a period of time where they thought there may have been a protest caused by the video," Graham said, describing the meeting.

Graham said Morell blamed others for changing the talking points.

"What I found curious is that he did not accept responsibility for changing the talking points. He told me the FBI had done this. I called the FBI -- they went ballistic. And I am sure somebody from the FBI called Mike Morell, but within 24 hours, his statement was changed where he admitted the CIA had done it."

Senator Ayotte backed up Graham’s allegations.   

“I was in that meeting when Susan Rice was with Director Morell when he blamed the FBI for changing those talking points, and you know then we call the FBI, the FBI goes crazy and said we didn't change the talking points. And so you have to wonder particularly now that we know that he may have received that email the day before what was going on.”

As he prepared to leave government, Morell gave an interview last August to the Wall Street Journal, which reported his interest '"in advising future presidential campaigns."   

The Journal also reported that "he is close to Hillary Clinton," citing unnamed officials.

"He's put himself out there now as a political player," said  Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch.

Fitton's group is suing in federal court for the talking points documents and recently received nearly 70 heavily redacted pages.

"You have to wonder what he was thinking at the time he was deleting these talking points in a way that benefited the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton personally," Fitton said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is one of six Republicans on the Senate committee who signed an addendum highlighting their unanswered questions about Benghazi.

"I think Mike Morell has had a distinguished public career, but many of the comments that he's made about - especially the last decade at the agency - are inconsistent with most of what he said while he was a CIA representative and coming before the committee,"  Burr told Fox.

Now a private citizen, Morell in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” broadcast in October, seemed to distance himself from his years at the CIA under President George W. Bush, and from the CIA's waterboarding of terrorism suspects, including the self-described architect of 9/11 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

"What's my view? My view was that those coercive techniques were the wrong thing to do. My view was that those techniques were inconsistent with American values. And -- for that reason-- I don't think they should have been done," Morell told CBS correspondent John Miller.

Since leaving government, Morell has accepted high profile assignments from the administration, including the NSA review panel that put together recommendations for Mr. Obama, as well as the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.

In addition to joining Beacon Global Strategies, a firm founded by Philippe Reines, who was recently described by the New York Times magazine as "Clinton's principal gatekeeper," Morell is now a commentator on national security issues for CBS News and also has a book deal.

Morell declined Fox's offer to speak on camera about the Senate report and his decisions. Fox asked Morell to address the Sep. 15 email, and whether it was the first time he was told there were no protests. 

In a written statement, Morell said the Senate report "...strongly supports the CIA's long-standing position -- that neither the unclassified talking points nor the classified analysis on which they were based were in any way politicized. While not perfect, neither the talking points nor the analysis were produced with any political agenda in mind. None. Both the analysis and the talking points represented the view of analysts at the time -- a view that evolved in the days that followed as more information became available."

While the committee's Democrats said the CIA talking points "painted a mostly accurate picture" of the intelligence at the time, the committee's six Republicans, including the vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, found otherwise. 

Of the talking points, the Republicans write, "Rather than simply provide Congress with the best intelligence and on the ground assessments, the Administration chose to try to frame the story in a way that minimized any connection to terrorism."

The Republicans also singled out Morell, who they claim was not forthright with the committee.

"...No effort was made to correct the record when, during testimony before the Committee in late 2012, the Acting Director of the CIA emphatically stated that the talking points were sent to the White House 'for their awareness, not for their coordination.' The emails, which the Committee received later, clearly show that the White House was, from the earliest moments asked to 'coordinate' on the talking points...in the world of Federal government interactions, 'coordination' carries with it a level of involvement and responsibility to overrule or influence that is not present when information is conveyed simply 'for awareness.'  The measure of White House influence can be seen in a September 15, 2012 email from then CIA-Director David Petraeus acknowledging that, in spite of his own misgivings, the final content of the talking points was the "(National Security Staff's) call to be sure."

After Fox’s report, Morell and Bill Harlow, who is working on a book with Morell, emailed Fox News and disputed the thoroughness of the timeline laid out in the bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report concerning the CIA chief of station email. 

Asked whether they’d taken this evidence to Senate investigators for consideration, both were silent on the question and on whether the chief of station email was the first time Morell was notified there were no demonstrations at the consulate.

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.