By Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When U.S. intelligence officials testified behind closed doors two weeks ago, they were asked point blank whether they had altered the talking points on which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice based her comments about the Benghazi attacks that have turned into a political firestorm.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen each said no, according to two congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The next day, November 16, former CIA director David Petraeus testified before the same congressional intelligence committees and also replied no to the question of whether he had changed the talking points, three congressional sources said.
The CIA on Tuesday told lawmakers that it had in fact changed the wording of the unclassified talking points to delete a reference to al Qaeda, according to senators who met with Morell on Tuesday. It appeared to be the first time that the CIA acknowledged it was the agency that made that change, congressional sources said.
"There was never any effort or intent to mislead or deceive. This was a complicated and imperfect coordination process, and no single person had all the information on the edits," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. "At the end of that process, however, the final version was signed off on by all the appropriate people at CIA and throughout the interagency."
Officials pointed out that the top intelligence officials would not necessarily have known when every edit to the talking points were made along the way.
At the November 15 hearing, Morell and Clapper were asked how each of the edits to the talking points were made, they each answered they did not know, but agreed to look into the editing and coordination process, officials said.
Petraeus a day later told lawmakers he had OK'd the final version of the talking points, which did not include the reference to al Qaeda, officials said.
The Obama administration's shifting explanations of who changed the talking points - which were the basis for its early, flawed public explanation of the attacks in Libya - have fueled Republican anger, and could prevent Rice, and maybe even Morell, from getting promotions.
"This is the fourth story about who changed the talking points and the third reason why - after all the agencies appeared under oath and said, ‘I don't know who changed the talking points.' To say I'm disappointed, confused, is an understatement," Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading critic of the White House's handling of Benghazi, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Rice has said she relied on the talking points from the intelligence agencies when she did a round of Sunday talk shows days after the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA base in Benghazi. In those appearances, she said the violence arose spontaneously from a protest of an anti-Islam film rather than a premeditated strike.
U.S. intelligence officials have since said that militants with ties to al Qaeda affiliates were likely involved in the attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. In a statement on Tuesday, Rice acknowledged there never had been a protest.
Republicans have criticized Rice's earlier comments as an attempt by the administration to play down al Qaeda connections to the attack ahead of the presidential elections, to avoid denting President Barack Obama's image on fighting terrorism. During the election campaign, Obama angrily denied that.
INTELLIGENCE CZAR REVIEW
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the CIA and the other spy agencies, is reviewing who made the changes to the talking points from the original set that was drafted by the CIA on September 14, congressional sources said.
On November 1, two weeks before the top intelligence officials testified at the closed-door hearings, congressional sources said, a CIA staffer had told a staff-level meeting of the congressional intelligence committees that the talking points drafted by her unit were changed after leaving their hands, leading to the early impression that the CIA had not been involved in changing the original language.
The CIA staffer was unaware of edits made to the document at the spy agency after it left her hands, other officials said. At another meeting on Capitol Hill later in November, the staffer clarified that al Qaeda was still in the version when it left her hands and she concurred with the near final version that did not include al Qaeda in it.
The initial draft referred to "attacks" carried out by "extremists with ties to al Qaeda." But by the time Rice received them before she went on the talk shows September 16., "attacks" had changed to "demonstrations" and "with ties to al Qaeda" had been deleted, multiple U.S. sources have said.
The question of who altered the talking points has been repeatedly asked of the White House and intelligence agencies.
Deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters onboard Air Force One en route to Thailand on November 17 that the White House made only minor adjustments to the talking points to change the reference to the diplomatic facility as a "consulate" because it was not formally a consulate. "The only edit ... made by the White House was the factual edit as to how to refer to the facility," he said.
Because the question has become such a flashpoint, some lawmakers who met with the CIA's Morell, who accompanied Rice to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, were flabbergasted that he told them - inaccurately - in their morning meeting that the FBI had altered the wording. The CIA later corrected his statement.
"CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why," Graham and two other Republican senators said in a statement on Tuesday.
"This was an honest mistake and it was corrected as soon as it was realized. There is nothing more to this," an intelligence official said about Morell's fumble.
A MORELL NOMINATION?
Graham has suggested he would hold up the nomination of Morell if Obama nominates him to be the new CIA director, as well as that of Rice if she is nominated to be Secretary of State, because of the administration's response to the Benghazi events. Morell and Rice are both believed to be on Obama's short list for those jobs.
But Morell appears to be fairly popular on Capitol Hill. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, doubted that Morell's reported verbal stumble on the talking points would disqualify him for a promotion should Obama choose him.
"I'm not sure that in and of itself would keep him from ever being confirmed," Chambliss told Reuters. The Senate must approve such appointments.
"Mike was actually not the director when this (the attack on Benghazi) took place. And he's kind of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again," Chambliss added, calling Morell a "smart, straightforward guy."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Jeff Mason; Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)