WASHINGTON – Ex-CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers during private hearings Friday that he believed all along that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was a terrorist strike, even though that wasn't how the Obama administration initially described it publicly.
The retired general addressed the House Intelligence Committee in his first Capitol Hill testimony since resigning last week over an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, but he did not discuss that scandal except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure.
Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA's talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers it was removed by other federal agencies who made changes to the CIA's draft.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Petraeus said he did not know who removed the reference to terrorism. King said to this day it's still not clear how the final talking points emerged that were used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her to appear in a series of television interviews. Rice said it appeared the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Petraeus disputed Republican suggestions that the White House misled the public on what led to the violence in the midst of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
"There was an interagency process to draft it, not a political process," Schiff said after the hearing. "They came up with the best assessment without compromising classified information or source or methods. So changes were made to protect classified information.
"The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," Schiff said. "He completely debunked that idea."
Schiff said Petraeus said Rice's comments in the television interviews "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly."
King said Petraeus had briefed the House committee on Sept. 14 and he does not recall Petraeus being so positive at that time that it was a terrorist attack. "He thought all along that he made it clear there was terrorist involvement," King said. "That was not my recollection."
Lawmakers said the affair with Broadwell that ended Petraeus' widely respected career came up only briefly at the top of Petraeus' 90-minute appearance before the House committee.
"The only thing he did in the beginning of his testimony is he did express deep regret to the committee for the circumstances for his depature" and reassure the committee that the Libya attacks had nothing to do with his resignation, said Rep. Jim Langevin, R-R.I.
Petraeus sneaked into the Capitol away from photographers and television cameras to provide his testimony before the House committee, which met in a secure room several floors below the main area of the Capitol Visitors Center where tourists gather when they are visiting Congress.
Petraeus, formerly one of the most respected U.S. military leaders, was whisked inside the hearing in a manner more suited to covert operative — through a network of underground hallways leading to a secure room.
During previous appearances before Congress, CIA directors typically have walked through the building's front door. Petraeus later headed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The secretive movements attested to the circus-like atmosphere of the scandal that has preoccupied Washington, even as the possibility of war looms in Israel and the U.S. government faces a market-rattling "fiscal cliff" that could imperil a still-fragile economy.
Lawmakers spent hours Thursday interviewing top intelligence and national security officials, trying to determine what intelligence agencies knew before, during and after the attack. They viewed security video from the consulate and surveillance footage by an unarmed CIA Predator drone that showed events in real time.
Petraeus has acknowledged cheating on his wife of 38 years with a woman later identified as Broadwell. The FBI began investigating the matter last summer but didn't notify the White House or Congress until after the election.
In the course of investigating the Petraeus affair, the FBI uncovered suggestive emails between Afghanistan war chief Gen. John Allen and Florida socialite Jill Kelley, both of them married. President Barack Obama has put a promotion nomination for Allen on hold.
The CIA on Thursday opened an exploratory investigation into Petraeus' conduct. The inquiry "doesn't presuppose any particular outcome," said CIA spokesman Preston Golson. At the same time, Army officials say that, at this point, there is no appetite for recalling Petraeus to active duty to pursue any adultery charges against him.
Petraeus, in his first media interview since he resigned, told CNN that he had never given classified information to Broadwell. She has said she didn't receive such material from Petraeus.
But the FBI found a substantial number of classified documents on Broadwell's computer and in her home, according to a law enforcement official, and is investigating how she got them. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. The Army has now suspended her security clearance.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Larry Margasak, Adam Goldman, Lolita C. Baldor, Pete Yost, Donna Cassata and Robert Burns contributed to this report.