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Former CIA official accused of misleading lawmakers on Benghazi

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell is facing accusations from Republicans that he misled lawmakers about the Obama administration's role in crafting the bogus storyline that a protest gone awry was to blame for the deadly Benghazi attack. 

Among other discrepancies, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee allege Morell insisted the talking points were sent to the White House for informational purposes, and not for their input -- but emails, later released by the administration, showed otherwise. 

"We found that there was actual coordination which could influence then -- and did influence -- what CIA conveyed to the committees about what happened [in Benghazi]," Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told Fox News. 

Burr was one of six Republicans who leveled the allegations against Morell, who also served as acting director, in an addendum to a recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report. According to the claims, in late 2012, Morell testified the so-called Benghazi talking points were sent to the White House "for their awareness, not for their coordination." 

The 16-page addendum continues, "No effort was made to correct the record ... the Acting Director's (Morell) testimony perpetuated the myth that the White House played no part in the drafting or editing of the talking points." 

After Morell's 2012 testimony, committee Republicans say they insisted on reading the raw email traffic in the days leading up to then-Ambassador Susan Rice's controversial Sunday show appearances, where she linked the attack to a protest. Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Fox News in a recent interview that they only got the emails between the CIA, State Department and White House because lawmakers threatened to hold up former White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. 

Once the emails were released, Republican lawmakers say the conflict with Morell's testimony was clear. Morell, who at the time was CIA Director David Petraeus' deputy, was at the heart of the process, cutting some 50 percent of the text -- and Republicans say White House coordination began at the earliest stages. 

Also in late 2012, Morell and Rice met with Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. In a statement released at the time, the senators said Morell blamed the FBI for cutting references to Al Qaeda and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation. 

"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," Graham said in a recent interview. "Within 24 hours, his statement was changed where he admitted the CIA had done it." 

Graham's characterization of the meeting was backed up by Ayotte in a recent interview. "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." 

The email Ayotte is referring to was sent by the CIA's top operative on the ground in Libya to Morell, and others at the CIA, one day before Rice's Sunday show appearances. In the Sept. 15, 2012 email, first publicly documented in the bipartisan section of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the CIA chief of station in Tripoli reported the attacks were "not/not an escalation of protests." 

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, is now urging that Morell be recalled to clear up his testimony. 

"I think it's important for the integrity of the oversight," Wolf said, adding that congressional oversight would be rendered meaningless if Morell were not recalled given the allegations against him. 

Wolf, whose resolution to establish a select committee has the backing of a Republican majority in the House, recently wrote a letter to all House Republicans calling for Morell to testify again, potentially in both chambers, to address possible conflicts with previous testimony. 

New details, confirmed by Fox News, suggest a similar scenario played out before the House Intelligence committee, chaired by Republican Mike Rogers. 

In mid-November 2012, Morell testified along with James Clapper, the nation's intelligence chief, and Matt Olsen, a senior counterrorism official.
When asked who was responsible for the talking points, first requested by Rogers' committee, Clapper said he had no idea, while Morell remained silent, according to sources familiar with the testimony. 

"If your silence does create a misleading impression even if you don't have a strict legal obligation to speak up I think as a public official -- somebody entrusted, infused with the public trust -- you do have an obligation to speak up to make the truth known,"  Tom Dupree, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, said. 

Once the talking points emails were released, and Morell's involvement came into sharper focus, in May 2013 he was asked to testify a second time before the House Intelligence Committee. Sources familiar with Morell's second testimony say he admitted to changing the talking points, and he offered shifting explanations -- from classification issues, to not compromising the FBI investigation -- and that exposing the failure of Hillary Clinton's State Department to act on repeated security warnings seemed unprofessional. 

While two sources say Morell insisted the talking points were an afterthought at a White House meeting on Sept. 15 where the text was finalized, an email from White House adviser Ben Rhodes suggests otherwise. Late in the evening of Sept. 14, Rhodes wrote to email addresses at the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, CIA, State Department, White House and National Security Staff: "There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed ... we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression. We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies." 

Dupree said lawmakers face a choice. "If you're not getting the full truth in those questions, well then you can either abandon your oversight function or you can call those people back and press them and confront them with the facts." 

Since retiring from the CIA, Morell has taken on high-profile assignments for the administration, including the NSA review panel and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. He is now a paid TV commentator for CBS News, has a book deal, and works for Beacon Global Strategies, whose founder Philippe Reines has been described by the New York Times magazine as Clinton's "principal gatekeeper." 

In an email to Fox News on Feb. 13, Morell said: "I stand behind what I have said to you and testified to Congress about the talking point issue. Neither the Agency, the analysts, nor I cooked the books in any way." 

When asked specific questions about Republican allegations he provided misleading testimony, Morell did not answer the questions, instead referring Fox News to the CIA public affairs office.   

Spokesman Dean Boyd provided this statement to Fox News: "As we have said multiple times, the talking points on Benghazi were written, upon a request from Congress, so that members of Congress could say something preliminary and in an unclassified forum about the attacks. As former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell has stated publicly time and again, the talking points were never meant to be definitive and, in fact, the points themselves noted that the initial assessment may change. He has addressed his role in the talking points numerous times. We don't have anything further to add to the large body of detail on the talking points that is already in the public domain."

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.

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