Ex-CIA boss Morell gives unorthodox reasons for omitting key Benghazi details

In his opening statement during highly anticipated testimony Wednesday on Benghazi, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell claimed to be an intelligence professional who was willing to lay out the facts -- no matter how damaging.

"I take very seriously the allegations about how the CIA in general and about how I in particular handled the analysis and the talking points," Morell told the House Intelligence Committee, in his first public testimony on the Benghazi attacks. "The ethical code under which intelligence officers carry out their responsibilities calls for total objectivity."

But Morell's own testimony would appear to undercut that statement.

Early on, Morell made a startling claim about the so-called “talking points,” the faulty narrative that initially blamed a protest for the attack.

On the talking points, Morell said he dropped information about CIA security warnings -- which were factual and accurate -- because he thought it would be unprofessional to embarrass then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's State Department.

This raised eyebrows, considering those warnings had alerted others that security conditions were rapidly deteriorating in eastern Libya. The warnings were not acted on, and four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the 2012 attack.

"You take out everything that is even related to warnings and a bunch of other stuff too,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said. "To me it seems like you are more interested in protecting the State Department than the State Department is, and more interested in protecting the FBI than the FBI."

In his defense, Morell responded: "I simply saw this as a way for CIA to pound its chest and say, ‘look, we warned’; therefore laying all the blame on the State Department. I did not think that appropriate."

In an email, one day before the talking points were used by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on national television, where she wrongly blamed a protest, then-CIA Director David Petraeus told Morell the talking points were so devoid of fact that they were useless.

But despite his boss' reservations, Morell went ahead with the text which limited damage to the State Department.

Thornberry told Morell: "Director Petraeus is concerned because he wanted more information about warnings in there. So that doesn't make sense to me."

The Republican chairman of the powerful House committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., also pushed Morell to explain why a reference to Al Qaeda was dropped.

"The only way we knew that was from classified sources," Morell explained. "There was nothing unclassified that said that Al Qaeda, that some of these individuals were associated with Al Qaeda."

Rogers suggested that didn’t square with the facts.

"I'm just not following that logic," Rogers countered. "Again, I came out the next day and said it had the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda attack, I don't think I was disclosing classified sources in doing it."

In the process of defending himself, Morell also contradicted administration statements immediately after the attack that no one knew who was behind it. Morell further discredited a highly touted December New York Times piece that "turned up no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault."

"The analysts said from the get-go that Al Qaeda was involved in this attack from the get-go," Morell said.

When Morell retired from the CIA last year, he told The Wall Street Journal he hoped to advise a presidential campaign, with anonymous sources telling the paper Morell was close to Clinton. Morell now works as a counselor at Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington D.C. firm closely aligned with the former secretary of State.

When asked about the overlapping connection between Beacon's founding partners, which include the former Republican staff director for the House Intelligence Committee where Morell testified, a Beacon statement said there was no conflict of interest.

"Upon accepting the offer to join the firm in July, he [Former Intelligence Committee Staff Director Michael Allen] 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,” the statement said.

Bill Cowan, a Fox News military analyst who spent more than two decades working with the intelligence agencies, said his former colleagues were alarmed by Morell’s testimony, especially his statement that if he wanted the CIA’s best judgment he would go to the analysts in Washington rather than to the agency’s top operatives in the field.

“I have a lot of friends inside and outside the agency who are absolutely incensed that Morell would take the word…of analysts in Washington DC over the chief of station,” Cowan said. “I believe his testimony was a real slam to the men and women serving out there, around the world, in the CIA who are really putting their lives on the line…those people really feel like they've been betrayed - that their work maybe doesn't matter quite as much as his personal ambitions do.”

Morell confirmed in Wednesday testimony that he reviewed, but ultimately dismissed, the reporting of the intelligence community’s top officer on the ground in Libya, the Chief of Station, who reported throughout the first week after the attack there was no protest that night.