By Joe Conason, National Memo
On Friday the Republican politicians who had so angrily demanded the testimony of David Petraeus about Benghazi got what they wanted – and what they deserved – when the former CIA director set forth the facts proving that their conspiracy theories and witch-hunts are dead wrong.
Appearing behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Gen. Petraeus, recently resigned from the spy agency over his illicit affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, answered questions from legislators concerning the tragic Sept. 11 assault that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel dead.
When the session concluded, Petraeus was spirited away. And Senator John McCain (R-AZ), whose criticism of the Obama administration over Benghazi has verged on hysterical, emerged from the hearing room with very little to say to the reporters waiting outside.
“General Petraeus’ briefing was comprehensive. I think it was important; it added to our ability to make judgments about what was clearly a failure of intelligence, and described his actions and that of his agency and their interactions with other agencies,” said McCain, adding, “I appreciate his service and his candor” before abruptly fleeing as reporters tried to question him.
McCain’s curt statement was in sharp contrast to his voluble remarks on Thursday, when he denounced UN Ambassador Susan Rice for what he and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described as her misleading description of the attack on Sunday television shows a few days after it occurred. (It later emerged, embarrassingly, that his posturing before the cameras on Benghazi had prevented him from attending a scheduled hearing on that subject. He didn’t want to to discuss that either.)
Essentially, McCain and Graham, joined by Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), accused Rice on Thursday of lying and covering up the fact that the Benghazi consulate had been attacked by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda. They vowed to prevent her confirmation as Secretary of State, should the president nominate her to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But with McCain departing so abruptly after the Petraeus hearing, it was left to others, including House Intelligence Committee chair Peter King (R-NY), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) to reveal what their Arizona colleague didn’t care to discuss. In his testimony, Petraeus blew apart the half-baked theories offered by McCain and Graham – and left them looking foolish.
On earlier occasions, King had echoed the same complaints made by McCain and Graham, but after Friday’s hearing he reluctantly admitted the truth: Petraeus had confirmed that the CIA had approved the talking points used by Rice, tentatively blaming the incident on a notorious anti-Muslim video sparking demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere at the time. Although Petraeus said he had believed that terrorists were responsible, that suggestion was removed from the talking points in order to protect the ongoing FBI investigation into Benghazi, which Rice also mentioned.
As King explained in response to reporters’ questions, Petraeus not only confirmed that any allusion to al Qaeda had been removed from the talking points given to Rice, but that his agency had consented to that decision:
Q: Did he say why it was taken out of the talking points that [the attack] was al Qaeda affiliated?
KING: He didn’t know.
Q: He didn’t know? What do you mean he didn’t know?
KING: They were not involved – it was done, the process was completed and they said, “OK, go with those talking points.” Again, it’s interagency – I got the impression that 7, 8, 9 different agencies.
Q: Did he give you the impression that he was upset it was taken out?
Q: You said the CIA said “OK” to the revised report –
KING: No, well, they said in that, after it goes through the process, they OK’d it to go. Yeah, they said “Okay for it to go.”
In short, Rice was using declassified talking points, developed and approved by the intelligence community, when she discussed the Benghazi attack. So McCain’s nasty personal denunciation of her , along with most of his claims about how the White House handled Benghazi, has been blown out of the water like so much naval scrap. The Arizona senator, his colleagues, and their loud enablers on Fox News and elsewhere in the wingnut media will never apologize to Rice. But that is what they owe her.