WASHINGTON (AP) — Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers during private hearings Friday he believed all along that the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was a terrorist strike, even though the Obama administration initially described it as protests against an anti-Muslim video.
Questions persist over what the administration knew immediately after the Benghazi attack killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and why its first public statements did not match intelligence agencies' assessments. The issue has threatened to affect the search for a new secretary of state once Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down. Clinton will testify next month on the attack.
Petraeus addressed intelligence committees in his first Capitol Hill testimony since resigning a week ago over an extramarital affair with his biographer, but he did not discuss that scandal except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure.
The retired four-star general, once the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he did not know who removed the reference to terrorism from the CIA's original draft of talking points on the Libya attack, Rep. Peter King told reporters.
Petraeus said references to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were replaced with the word "extremist" in the final draft, but he didn't know which agency did that, a congressional staffer said. The staffer wasn't authorized to discuss the hearing publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The fact is, the reference to al-Qaida was taken out somewhere along the line by someone outside the intelligence community," King said. "We need to find out who did it and why."
Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not made for political reasons during President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
"The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," said Rep. Adam Schiff. "He completely debunked that idea."
But Republicans were still critical. Sen. Marco Rubio said Petraeus' 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 September 11."
King said that to this day, it's still not clear how the final talking points emerged that were used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack, when the White House sent her to appear in a series of television interviews.
Rice said it appeared the attack was caused by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. Some Republican senators this week vowed to block Rice if Obama nominates her to succeed Clinton as secretary of state.
Schiff said Petraeus said Rice's comments in the television interviews "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly."
Petraeus, once one of the most respected U.S. military leaders as the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, sneaked into the Capitol through a network of underground hallways, away from photographers and television cameras.
During previous appearances before Congress, CIA directors typically have walked through the front door.
Lawmakers have spent hours interviewing top intelligence and national security officials, trying to determine what intelligence agencies knew before, during and after the Libya attack. They viewed security video from the consulate and surveillance footage by an unarmed CIA Predator drone that showed events in real time.
Lawmakers also have been concerned this week about any security leaks related to Petraeus' affair.
Petraeus last week acknowledged the affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The resignation stunned Washington, which once had buzzed with talk about a possible run for president in his future.
Lawmakers said the affair came up only briefly Friday.
"The only thing he did in the beginning of his testimony is, he did express deep regret to the committee for the circumstances for his departure" and reassured the committee that the Libya attacks had nothing to do with his resignation, said Rep. Jim Langevin.
The FBI began investigating the affair last summer but didn't notify the White House or Congress until after the Nov. 6 election.
The CIA on Thursday opened an exploratory investigation into Petraeus' conduct. The inquiry "doesn't presuppose any particular outcome," said CIA spokesman Preston Golson.
Petraeus, in his first media interview since he resigned, told CNN that he had never given classified information to Broadwell. She has said she didn't receive such material from Petraeus.
But the FBI found a substantial number of classified documents on Broadwell's computer and in her home, according to a law enforcement official, and is investigating how she got them. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. The Army has now suspended her security clearance.
In the course of investigating the affair, the FBI uncovered suggestive emails between Afghanistan war chief Gen. John Allen and Florida socialite Jill Kelley, both of them married. Obama has put a promotion nomination for Allen on hold.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Larry Margasak, Adam Goldman, Lolita C. Baldor, Pete Yost, Donna Cassata and Robert Burns contributed to this report.