(WASHINGTON) — Disgraced former CIA director Petraeus spent almost four hours in closed-door hearings before the House and Senate intelligence committees Friday morning to testify about what he learned first-hand about the Sept. 11 attack in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Democratic senators who emerged from the hearing said Petraeus’ testimony supported U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
Rice, who could be nominated for Secretary of State by President Obama, has been accused by Republicans of trying to mislead the country by saying the attack was a spontaneous eruption rather than a failure to defend against a terrorist attack.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Rice was speaking from talking points prepared by the CIA and approved by the intelligence committee.
“The key is that they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage. And I don’t think she should be pilloried for this. She did what I would have done or anyone else would have done that was going on a weekend show,” Feinstein said. “To say that she is unqualified to be Secretary of State I think is a mistake. And the way it keeps going it’s almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Petraeus’ testimony “clarified some of the issues that were still a little cloudy” over the attacks.
Chambliss said Rice “went beyond” the talking points. “She even mentioned that under the leadership of Barack Obama we had decimated al Qaeda. Well, she knew at that time that al Qaeda was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens,” he said.
Petraeus was before the House committee for about 90 minutes, and then spent more than two hours before the Senate panel, but Congressional officials made sure that no one else got speak to or even see the former four-star general.
He was brought into the House before reporters were aware of his presence and Capitol Hill police cleared out a passage way from the House to the Senate, even requiring congressional staff to stay out of the hallways and elevators.
Feinstein attributed the heightened security to a concern for Petraeus’ well-being.
“The general was both eager and willing to give us his views on this and his experience on it and that is very much appreciated particularly because of the situation. We didn’t want to make it any more difficult for him. And you know, you people aren’t always the easiest,” Feinstein said, speaking to members of the press.
The committees had been pushing to hear from Petraeus about the Benghazi attack, particularly since he traveled to Libya and carried out his own investigation into what happened.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the sex scandal that forced Petraeus to abruptly resign was not a factor in the hearing, which was confined to the terror attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“Ten seconds into it, that was off to the side,” King said, referring to the scandal.
The congressman said that what Petraeus told the panel “will all be classified other than it was clear it did not arise from a demonstration and it was a terror attack.”
King said that Petraeus maintained that he said early on that the ambush was a result of terrorism, but King added that he remembered Petraeus and the Obama administration downplaying the role of an al Qaeda affiliate in the attack in the days after Stevens was killed. The administration initially said the attack grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against a video that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.
“That is not my recollection” of what Petraeus initially said, King said Friday.
The congressman suggested that pressing Petraeus was awkward at times.
“It’s a lot easier when you dislike the guy,” King said.
Petraeus resigned last week after disclosing an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
He expressed regret for his affair during his opening statements before the Senate, but the committee was more interested in finding out what Petraeus learned from his trip to Libya in the days after the killings.
The Senate Intelligence Committee met for just under four hours on Thursday, hearing testimony from acting CIA Director Mike Morell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, among others.
During Thursday’s closed-door briefing, the committee members saw a film put together by the National Counterterrorism Center of the events in Benghazi. Also testifying Thursday were FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, Under Secretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen.
The week after next, the committee will resume with two full hearings. Feinstein predicted that the committee will then have an open, public hearing.
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