WASHINGTON — Testifying out of sight, former CIA director David Petraeus told Congress on Friday that classified intelligence showed the deadly raid on the US Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but the administration withheld the suspected role of Al Qaeda affiliates to avoid tipping them off.
The recently resigned spy chief explained that references to terrorist groups suspected of carrying out the violence were removed from the public explanation of what caused the attack so as not to alert them that US intelligence was on their trail, according to lawmakers who attended Petraeus’s private briefings.
He also said it initially was unclear whether the militants had infiltrated a demonstration to cover their attack.
The retired four-star general addressed the House and Senate intelligence committees in back-to-back, closed-door hearings as questions persist over what the Obama administration knew in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and why its public description did not match intelligence agencies’ assessments.
After the hearings, lawmakers who questioned Petraeus said he testified that the CIA’s draft talking points in response to the assault on the diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. Petraeus said that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency deleted it.
Adding to the explanation, a senior US official familiar with the drafting of the points said later that a reason the references to Al Qaeda were deleted was that the information came from classified sources and the links were, and still are, tenuous. The administration also did not want to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages, that official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the process publicly.
Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not done for political reasons during President Obama’s reelection campaign. ‘‘The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda,’’ said Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California. ‘‘He completely debunked that idea.’’
But Republicans remain critical of the administration’s handling of the case. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said Petraeus’s testimony showed that ‘‘clearly the security measures were inadequate despite an overwhelming and growing amount of information that showed the area in Benghazi was dangerous, particularly on the night of Sept. 11.’’
In fact, Petraeus told lawmakers that protesters literally walked in and set fire to the facility, according to a congressional official who attended the briefing. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens died from smoke inhalation. Petraeus said security at the CIA annex was much better, but the attackers had armaments to get in.
Separately on Friday, the Democratic leader in the Senate rejected a request from John McCain and two other senators for a Watergate-style congressional committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. In a letter to McCain, Senator Harry Reid said several committees in the House and Senate are already investigating and he would not allow the Senate to be used as a ‘‘venue for baseless partisan attacks.’’
Petraeus was giving his first Capitol Hill testimony since resigning last week in disgrace over an extramarital affair with his biographer. Lawmakers said he did not discuss that scandal except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure and say that Benghazi had nothing to do with his decision to resign. He was brought to a secure room beneath the Capitol.
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb but that those names were replaced with the word ‘‘extremist’’ in the final draft, according to a congressional staff member. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, said Petraeus explained that the CIA’s draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including him, and everyone signed off on it.
Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, said it remained unclear how the final talking points developed. The edited version was used by UN Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her out for a series of television interviews. Republicans have criticized Rice for saying it appeared the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video. After two hours with Petraeus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate’s intelligence committee and the panel’s top Republican sparred over Rice’s televised comments.
Chairman Dianne Feinstein of California said Rice relied on ‘‘unclassified talking points at a very early stage. . . . I don’t think she should have been pilloried for this.’’