Two leading Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence say that Michael Morell, then acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave an account of his role on Benghazi that was often misleading and sometimes deliberately false.
“I went back and reviewed some of his testimony the other day and he’s gotten himself in a real box,” says Senator Saxby Chambliss, the highest-ranking Republican on the committee. “It’s really strange. I’ve always thought Mike was a straight-up guy, gave us good briefings—factual, straightforward. I mean, this has really been strange the last few weeks—all this now being uncovered.”
At issue is the role Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, played in producing the Obama administration’s flawed talking points about the fatal attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, and the misleading answers he gave lawmakers who investigated them.
The allegations of misconduct are serious. In the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report, six Republican members accuse Morell of lying in sworn testimony to Congress. Several Republican senators tell The Weekly Standard that Morell misled them in one-on-one or small-group meetings about the talking points. Morell—now counselor to Beacon Global Strategies, a consultancy close to Hillary Clinton—did not respond to a request for comment.
Three aspects of the controversy are drawing particular interest: (1) Morell’s obfuscation of his central role in rewriting the talking points, (2) Morell’s contention that the FBI rewrote the talking points, and (3) Morell’s false claim that the talking points were provided to the White House merely as a heads-up and not for coordination.
Who Revised the Talking Points?
Within days of the Benghazi attacks, it was clear that major elements of the Obama administration’s public story about the events were dubious. Within weeks, investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee learned that the unclassified “talking points” provided by the CIA to members of Congress and top administration officials told a different story than the classified intelligence. “We were seeing the classified stuff and then we see the unclassified talking points,” recalls one lawmaker with access to the intelligence. “It just didn’t match up.”
Among the changes: Early drafts referred to “al Qaeda” and “attacks,” while later drafts did not. So lawmakers began to ask questions.
On November 15, 2012, four top intelligence officials appeared before the Senate committee to answer questions about Benghazi: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Matthew Olsen, head of the National Counterterrorism Center; Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management; and Morell, acting director of the CIA.
Chambliss says he grilled the officials about changes made to the talking points. “I went down the line. I said: ‘Okay, guys, did you change the talking points?’ Every one of them said no.”
The questioning might not have been that precise, according to sources familiar with the hearing, but much of the hearing was devoted to uncovering how the talking points had been put together and who had made the changes. Morell volunteered nothing.
Senator Richard Burr was more specific. The senator asked each witness if he knew who had been responsible for changing the word “attacks” to “demonstrations.” Again, denials down the line. “I think that Mike answered what he felt he was asked,” says Burr. “But there was clearly enough that he knew that he could have shortcut this process.”
A similar process played out at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that same day. Clapper, as the top U.S. intelligence official, was asked if he knew who had revised the talking points. His answer: I don’t. According to three officials in the room, the other intelligence officials also indicated that they didn’t know who had made the changes, but their answers were nonverbal and thus do not appear in the transcript. Representative Peter King reported after the hearing that the officials had claimed not to know who had changed the language. The denials were widely reported.
“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,” read a Reuters story on November 28. “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.”
For two weeks, the official public position of the intelligence community was that no one knew who had made the changes. In private meetings with lawmakers, on Capitol Hill and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Morell denied that he had played any significant role in writing or revising the talking points.
Without any answers, members of the congressional oversight committees pressed the White House to turn over emails and other documents pertaining to the talking points. For months, the administration refused, citing the deliberative process inside the executive branch. But when the president decided to nominate John Brennan to run the CIA, Republicans in the Senate finally had some leverage. Several threatened to block Brennan’s nomination unless the administration cooperated more fully on Benghazi. Eventually, the White House made available on a “read-only” basis nearly 100 pages of emails between top intelligence and Obama administration officials.
Those emails, which the White House gave reporters in May 2013, showed Morell had been a key player in rewriting the talking points. In fact, a September 15 email to Susan Rice described a secure video teleconference in which Morell told others on the call that he had rewritten the talking points and would be happy to revise them further in consultation with top advisers to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. The email reports: “Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them. He noted that he would be happy to work with Jake Sullivan [State Department] and [Ben] Rhodes [White House] to develop appropriate talking points.”
The messages contradicted claims from Jay Carney and other top administration officials that neither the White House nor the State Department had played any role in revising the substance of the talking points. Among others, top State Department officials expressed concern about the contents of the talking points and, in consultation with “building leadership,” pushed for changes.
Carney was grilled on the contradictions at the White House press briefing on May 10, 2013, after The Weekly Standard and ABC News reported on the emails.
“On Benghazi, and with all due credit to my colleague on the right,” a reporter asked Carney, “we have had emails showing that the State Department pushed back against talking-point language from the CIA and expressed concern about how some of the information would be used politically in Congress. You have said the White House only made a stylistic change here, but these were not stylistic changes. These were content changes. So again, what role did the White House play, not just in making but in directing changes that took place to these?”
Carney explained the process, downplaying the administration’s role. Then he got specific. “The CIA—in this case, deputy director of the CIA—took that process and issued a set of talking points on that Saturday morning, and those talking points were disseminated.”
Five days later, when the White House released the emails, the administration enlisted Morell to participate in two background press briefings. While the emails themselves showed robust and sometimes contentious exchanges between top officials, Morell told reporters that he had been responsible for most of the substantive changes.
That’s quite a reversal. In November 2012, Morell had dodged responsibility during congressional hearings and misled lawmakers in private meetings. Then in May, the White House spokesman told the world that Mike Morell had been in charge of the process that produced the talking points, and Morell privately told reporters the same thing.
In June, Morell resigned. Soon he joined the consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies, cofounded by four men: Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to Leon Panetta, who was secretary of defense during the Benghazi attacks; Michael Allen, former staff director of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, which helped investigate Benghazi; Andrew Shapiro, former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs; and Philippe Reines, recently described by New York magazine as Hillary Clinton’s “most visible spokesman and the guardian of her public persona.”
Senator Chambliss notes that before leaving government, Morell “ultimately did own up to the fact that he made the changes. But,” he adds, “if he’d have said that early on, it would have solved a lot of problems and answered a lot of questions.”
The FBI Did It?
On November 27, 2012, Morell accompanied U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to Capitol Hill to meet with senators, including Republican critics of her role in selling the misleading Benghazi narrative to the country. At the time, Rice was considered a possible successor to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and the meetings were seen as an attempt to mollify her critics. Morell had been named acting CIA director after the resignation of David Petraeus.
Senator Lindsey Graham met Morell and Rice along with Senator John McCain and Senator Kelly Ayotte. Graham says they were not told in advance that Morell would be joining Rice, and he remembers asking Rice why he was there. “She said: ‘He will help you understand what was going on with the talking points,’ ” Graham recalls.
The first question of the meeting was simple: “Who changed the talking points?” Morell responded, telling the senators that the FBI had made the revisions. “He told us that the FBI made the changes because they were the ones on the ground talking to people, and they didn’t want to jeopardize their investigation.” Graham says Morell implied that the CIA didn’t have enough information to have made the changes, telling the group that the FBI wouldn’t share with the CIA information from their interviews with the survivors.
Graham was surprised. “It was the first time I’d heard anyone say the FBI,” he says. And if the FBI wasn’t sharing intelligence in real-time with the CIA, Graham recalls, it would mean we were back to pre-9/11-style stovepiping. So Graham called FBI leadership to ask why the bureau would have withheld such important information from the CIA. “They went apeshit,” says Graham, and offered an unequivocal denial.
Here is the press release Graham, McCain, and Ayotte put out that afternoon:
Around 10:00 this morning in a meeting requested by Ambassador Rice, accompanied by acting CIA Director Mike Morell, we asked Mr. Morell who changed the unclassified talking points to remove references to al-Qaeda. In response, Mr. Morell said the FBI removed the references and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation. We were surprised by this revelation and the reasoning behind it.
However, at approximately 4:00 this afternoon, 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 doesn’t think Morell misspoke. “He knew when he met with us that it wasn’t the FBI who had changed the talking points. He lied.”
Senator Richard Burr, who sits on the intelligence committee and is expected to become the top-ranking Republican after Chambliss retires, sees a simple explanation. “Morell tried to dump this on the FBI and got caught.”
Awareness or Coordination?
Perhaps the most serious charge against Morell comes in the “Additional Views” section of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Benghazi. The authors, six Republican senators who sit on that panel, report for the first time that in his testimony on November 15, 2012, Morell “emphatically stated” that the talking points were provided to the White House “for their awareness, not for their coordination.”
That is not true, according to the 100 pages of emails between administration and intelligence officials released last May. In fact, in one of the emails that began the flurry of communication among top officials, a CIA spokesman tells a White House spokesman that the talking points are being provided to the White House “for coordination.” That email, sent on September 14 from the chief of media relations at the CIA to the White House’s National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, reads: “You should be seeing some ‘White Paper’ talking points from us this afternoon for coordination.” Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy and national security adviser to President Obama, was copied on the email. So from the very beginning, top White House officials were involved in coordinating the discussion of what would go into the talking points, with heavy input from senior officials at the State Department and the intelligence community.
Was Morell unaware that the express purpose of circulating the talking points was White House coordination? That seems unlikely.
Later that day, September 14, the CIA public affairs office sent White House officials another draft of the talking points with instructions to “review the below and respond with your comments ASAP.” An email later that evening from the same office noted: “everyone has submitted coordination comments.”
In an email the following morning, Morell writes to officials working for the director of national intelligence seeking their approval of the talking points. “Everyone else has coordinated,” he notes above a review of “tweaks” made by State Department and White House officials. Finally, according to a September 15 email from then-CIA director David Petraeus, the final decisions on the talking points were “[National Security Staff’s] call, to be sure.”
Given all of this, why would Morell emphatically claim two months later that the talking points, already the subject of public scrutiny, had been provided to the White House only for awareness and not “coordination”?
It’s a good question. And a growing number of Republicans are determined to get an answer from him.
“Morell’s explanations at the time didn’t seem plausible,” says Representative Devin Nunes, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “With these new revelations, Congress has an oversight responsibility to call him back to testify in order to get the full truth.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.