(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The debate over the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, is back. It's gotten complicated because a key figure in those events - the CIA director David Petraeus - has had to resign after admitting to an extramarital affair.
But members of Congress were so eager to hear from Mr. Petraeus, they brought him back to Capitol Hill yesterday to get his version of the Benghazi story. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: President Obama's critics say there's lots about Benghazi that reflect poorly on his administration, but this week they focused on what U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on TV shows, five days after the attack. She said it began as a spontaneous demonstration prompted by anger over an anti-Muslim video and that extremists only joined later.
Four Americans were killed, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. Some Republicans are so outraged by Rice's failure to blame al- Qaida that they said this week they'll block her from becoming Secretary of State, if President Obama nominates her. That angered the president, who in a news conference vigorously defended Rice's TV comments.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: She made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.
GJELTEN: So, we know it was the White House that sent Susan Rice out on those Sunday shows, and that she was given talking points. But the story has changed since then. Intelligence officials now say the Benghazi attack was not spontaneous. And they think an al-Qaida offshoot was behind it.
This week, then, these questions loomed: Did Susan Rice, at the behest of the White House, deliberately downplay the Benghazi attack? Who approved the talking points that guided her comments? If it was CIA Director David Petraeus, was it only because he knew he was under an FBI investigation and was hoping to stay out of trouble with the White House? We got some answers yesterday.
In his behind-closed-door appearances on Capitol Hill, Petraeus is said to have denied any connection between his troubles and the Benghazi controversy. But on the other issues - not so clear. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Petraeus left him thinking someone had sanitized Rice's TV talking points.
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: The original talking points were much more specific about al-Qaida involvement. And the final ones just said, indications of extremists, even though it was clearly evident to the CIA that there was al-Qaida involvement.
GJELTEN: But Democrats in Congress had a different interpretation. Kent Conrad, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he learned from Petraeus that Rice did not mention al-Qaida's involvement because it hadn't been cleared for public discussion yet.
SENATOR KENT CONRAD: She used the unclassified talking points that were signed off on by the entire intelligence community. So criticisms of her are completely unwarranted.
SIMON: That view got some support yesterday. A senior intelligence official said any information about an al-Qaida link was classified at that time. Rice's Benghazi talking points, the official said, were not edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack.
Still, some Republicans think Ambassador Rice was trying to spin the Benghazi story for political reasons. Saxby Chambliss is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: She even mentioned that under the leadership of Barack Obama we had decimated al-Qaida. Well, she knew at that point in time that al-Qaida was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens.
GJELTEN: General David Petraeus, though now disgraced by a sex scandal, managed to set the record straight yesterday on some points, but the administration's handling of the Benghazi story remains controversial, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is at the center of it all.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.