WASHINGTON: Former CIA chief David Petraeus has done little to halt bi-partisan sparring over whether the administration misled the public over who was behind an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Petraeus appeared on Friday before two congressional committees in his first public appearance since resigning last week over an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
But reporters drooling over the prospect of questioning him over the scandal came away empty handed: the four-star general slipped in and out of the hearing rooms without being seen.
Petraeus told House and Senate lawmakers that he knew from the outset that the attack, which killed four Americans including US ambassador Chris Stevens, was the work of terrorists.
However, Petraeus said the administration withheld this information so as not to let the attackers know that American intelligence agencies were tracking them, The New York Times and other news outlets said, quoting lawmakers.
In the days after the attack, which came right in the middle of the US presidential election campaign, the administration said the hours-long assault erupted as part of a simultaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.
On September 14, Petraeus apparently told Congress that that was the CIA’s initial take on the events. Since then, the administration’s position has evolved, and the attack is now seen as having been a pre-meditated assault by an al-Qaeda-linked militia. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, said Petraeus has changed his take on the attack since September.
“General Petraeus’s testimony today was from the start he had told us this was a terrorist attack or terrorist-involved,” King said on Friday.
“I told him in my questions I had a different recollection of that and the clear impression given was that the overwhelming matter of evidence is that it... arose out of a spontaneous demonstration and was not a terrorist attack.”
King and other lawmakers said they were grateful for Petraeus’s testimony but they made it clear they still had deep concerns. “Many of my questions were answered. Many were not,” said Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who sat in on a Benghazi briefing Friday by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“We’re past the election,” the Republican added. “I think it’s time now for them to lay it all out.” King and others said Petraeus only briefly addressed his affair, saying he deeply regretted it and the circumstances around his resignation, and that they had no effect on his testimony.
The US mission in Benghazi included a large CIA operation, which Petraeus would have overseen before quitting as US spy chief. Republicans have accused Washington’s UN envoy Susan Rice of misleading the country by telling Sunday talk shows after the attack that it was part of a “spontaneous” protest against an anti-Islam video.
State Department and FBI probes into the attack are under way, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to testify before House and Senate hearings once her department finishes a review of events.
On Friday some lawmakers said there was more to the story that needed to be uncovered. Republicans are strongly hinting at a larger scandal and possible cover-up.