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New questions about ex-CIA director’s Benghazi claims ahead of testimony

New allegations are raising additional questions about former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell's involvement in crafting the administration's flawed narrative on the Benghazi attack, ahead of his scheduled testimony next week on Capitol Hill. 

Morell is set to testify publicly for the first time on Wednesday about his role in crafting the controversial Benghazi "talking points," which initially blamed a protest for the deadly attack. 

The former acting director, and deputy director, was called to testify to explain potentially conflicting testimony he gave Congress about the talking points and the administration's role. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers told reporters this week -- before news of his retirement was made public -- that the rare, open session should "allow Mr. Morell to answer the questions that we know many people have about what he knew and when he knew it." 

But another detail is raising questions. According to a source with first-hand knowledge of events, during a secure video conference call two days after the Sept. 11, 2012 attack, Morell told the team in Libya that there was intelligence a demonstration preceded the assault. With that statement, Morell apparently dismissed the reporting of U.S. personnel on the ground, including the CIA's top officer, known as the chief of station. 

"We've done a forensic on that event.  We never found a reference to demonstrations from individuals who were on the ground," Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told Fox News in a recent interview. Burr sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee which conducted its own investigation on Benghazi.  The bipartisan findings released in January were highly critical of the State Department and the administration's resistance to fully explain its role in the flawed talking points. 

"Whether it's the chief of station in Tripoli, whether it's the diplomatic security, or the GRS (Global Response Team) response team that went, from day one all referrals were an attack that was underway," the senator said. 

Fox News is also told that even before the video teleconference, or VTC, the chief of station understood based on communications with CIA headquarters in Washington that the burden was on him to prove there was no demonstration. 

"That's incomprehensible to me, it doesn't make any sense at all. It's completely contrary to any procedure or any experience I have," CIA veteran Charles S. Faddis told Fox News. Based on two decades of experience, Faddis emphasized that the chief of station's word is gospel, that cables are the agency's lifeblood, and that the VTC may also be a red flag. 

"Against the backdrop of everything else, it seems to be an opportunity maybe for Washington to put pressure on the chief of station to back away, to change his opinion, to sort of serve as notice that they're not going listen to him." 

The Senate Intelligence Committee report into Benghazi states that two days after the VTC, on Sept. 15, the chief of station wrote to Morell and other CIA leadership, emphasizing in an email that the attacks were "not/not an escalation of protests." 

Morell is accused by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee of misleading lawmakers by claiming that the talking points, which wrongly blamed a protest that spun out of control, were provided to White House officials for awareness and not for their input. Emails later released show administration involvement began at the earliest stages, and Morell personally cut 50 percent of the text. 

"It was Mike Morrell that rewrote the talking points, he said in an effort to appease everybody that sat around the table meaning all the different agencies and the national security staff," Burr said, referencing a meeting on Sept. 15, 2012, where the talking points were finalized. 

Also at issue is the Beltway's revolving door. After retiring from the CIA, Morell joined Beacon Global Strategies, on Washington's L Street. 

Two of four managing directors and founders -- Philippe Reines and Andrew Shapiro -- worked directly for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Another managing director and founder, Jeremy Bash, worked for Leon Panettta at the CIA and Defense Department. 

The fourth managing director and founder, Michael Allen, was the majority staff director at the House Intelligence Committee where Morell will testify for a third time next week -- this time in public. Some political analysts say the bottom line is that Allen is now working with the people he once investigated. 

"Now is the time to peel back the onion on these relationships," Brad Blakeman, a Fox News contributor and member of former President George W. Bush's senior staff, explained. "What promises were made? What renumeration was promised? This is also a very important part of getting to the truth of decisions." 

In the 100 pages of Benghazi emails, released by the administration last May after Senate Republicans threatened to block the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, is an overlooked message to Susan Rice from one of her deputies on Sept. 15, 2012, one day before Rice's controversial Sunday show appearances where she blamed the video.  The email text is separated from the header and not immediately clear that it summarizes a critical meeting on Sept. 15 where the talking points were finalized. 

The email leaves no doubt that Morell was at the center of the talking points process, working closely with administration officials from the White House and State Department. 

It said: "... Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them. He noted that he would be happy to work with Jake Sullivan (policy advisor to Clinton at State) and Rhodes (strategic communications advisor to President Obama) to develop appropriate talking points. McDonough, on Rhodes's behalf, deferred to Sullivan.  It was agreed that Jake would work closely with the intelligence community (within a small group) to finalize points on Saturday ..." 

After retiring from the CIA, Morell also joined Beacon Global Strategies as a counselor, and he now works for Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes' brother at CBS News as a national security TV commentator.   

When pressed by Fox News to explain apparent discrepancies between Allen's disclosure forms to Congress that he was in discussions with Beacon in July, when the company registered as an LLC in Washington D.C. in April 2013, Beacon Global Strategies provided a lengthy statement which also addressed the timing of Morell's employment: 

"This firm was founded on the strong belief that keeping America secure must be a nonpartisan endeavor, and is dedicated to acting in a truly bipartisan manner. We not only adhere to all governing ethics rules and laws, we strive to go above and beyond those requirements and hold ourselves to the high ethical and professional standards we did throughout our decades serving in government. As for the timeline: this company was formally created by the three original partners in April of 2013. Mr. Allen was approached at the end of June, at which point he filed a 'Notification of Negotiations or Agreement for Future Employment' with the US House of Representatives Committee on Ethics. He subsequently filed a 'Statement of Recusal' with the same committee. Upon accepting the offer to join the firm in July, he promptly and fully disclosed such to Congressional officials. Mr. Morell was not approached until November. Therefore, nobody could have been influenced by events that were not yet planned and had not yet occurred." 

When asked by Fox News to resolve discrepancies in his congressional testimony, Morell referred the questions to the CIA public affairs office. Fox News asked the CIA public affairs office who authorized its use by Morell, given the CIA public affairs office is taxpayer funded, and whether the public affairs office could shed any light on why the CIA chief of station understood the burden was on him to prove there was no protest in Benghazi. 

While not addressing specifics, spokesman Dean Boyd said: "The CIA Office of Public Affairs has never instructed Morell to refer all media calls he receives on Benghazi to the Office of Public Affairs. Because your (Fox) Benghazi questions often relate to Morell's activities when he was at CIA, he has occasionally referred you to CIA OPA or advised us of your query. There's no formal arrangement between Morell and CIA OPA " 

In an exchange on Feb. 27, Boyd provided the statement below about Morell and the talking points, suggesting the issue was settled: 

"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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