By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress on Friday that he and the spy agency had sought to make clear from the outset that September's deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, involved an al Qaeda affiliate, lawmakers said.
Petraeus told lawmakers that "there were extremists in the group" that launched the attack on the diplomatic mission, describing them as affiliates of al Qaeda and other groups, said Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
"The fact is that he clarified it," Ruppersberger said.
Petraeus appeared behind closed doors before the House and Senate intelligence panels the week after quitting his CIA post because of an extramarital affair. He made no public remarks.
Another lawmaker, Republican Representative Peter King, said Petraeus' account in the closed-door session differed from the assessment the CIA chief gave to Congress two months ago, just days after the September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
"He also stated that he thought all along he made it clear that there were significant terrorist involvement, and that is not my recollection of what he told us on September 14," King said.
Petraeus admitted last week to an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Lawmakers said a somber Petraeus told them his resignation had nothing to do with issues related to Benghazi or any reluctance to testify before Congress.
"The general did not address any specifics of the affair, of that issue," Democratic Representative Jim Langevin said. "What he did say in his opening statement was that he regrets the circumstances that led to his resignation."
The assault on the U.S. mission and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi has turned into a flash point between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republicans.
Republicans accuse the White House and in particular the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, of misleading the public just after the attack by suggesting the assault was a spontaneous act instead of a planned terrorist operation. The Obama administration denies misleading anyone and says it discussed information about the Benghazi tragedy as it came in.
Some Republicans have suggested the administration initially wanted to avoid the idea that it had failed to prevent a terrorist attack, which might have dampened the president's re-election chances on November 6. Obama, who won a second term, has denied that implication.
King said that unclassified talking points about the attack prepared by the CIA for use by lawmakers, and apparently relied on by Rice, originally pointed specifically to al Qaeda involvement, but were edited before being cleared for use.
"The original talking points were much more specific about al Qaeda involvement. And the final ones just said, ‘indications of extremists,'" King said.
He quoted Petraeus as saying that officials did not realize the significance of the change at the time, "and that for an unclassified statement, this was acceptable."
'BLAME IT ON US'
Petraeus, a retired Army four-star general, slipped in and out of the closed sessions unseen by a swarm of media. Capitol police cleared journalists and others from hallways where the former CIA director might have been spotted.
"You can blame it on us," Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters who complained about not even seeing Petraeus. "The general was both eager and willing to give us his views on this, and his experience on it, and that's very much appreciated. ... We didn't want to make it any more difficult for him."
Although he has left the CIA, Petraeus was asked to testify about Benghazi in part because he had gone to Libya before his resignation to interview people about what happened in Benghazi on September 11.
Lawmakers appeared to treat the question of Petraeus' personal life with kid gloves. They said the questioning was sometimes awkward against the backdrop of the Broadwell scandal and because some of them have known Petraeus for years and think highly of his military service in which he ran the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I consider him a friend, which made the questioning tough, to be honest with you," King told reporters.
"I've known him for nine years now. I actually asked him to run for president a few years ago," he said.
Democratic lawmakers emerging from the sessions with Petraeus said it was clear Rice had been speaking from the talking points that were approved by the U.S. intelligence community when she discussed the Benghazi attack.
In five Sunday talk-show appearances on September 16, Rice said the assault was prompted by an anti-Muslim video and then developed into a more violent act. But she also told CBS's "Face the Nation" that day that it was "clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence."
"I don't think she should be pilloried for this," said Feinstein, who was carrying a copy of the talking points that were probably given to Rice and read them aloud to journalists.
"She did what I would have done, or anyone else would have done, that is going on a weekend show. You would have said, 'What talking points can I use?'" Feinstein said. "It's almost as if the intent is to assassinate the character."
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee's top Republican, told reporters the problem with Rice's talk show appearances was that she did not stick with the talking points she was given on the Benghazi attack.
"She knew at that point in time that al Qaeda was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens," he said.
Some senior Republicans have vowed to block Rice's potential nomination for secretary of state or another top Cabinet post because of her Benghazi comments. Rice is believed to be on Obama's short list to replace Hillary Clinton, who has said she intends to leave her State Department job.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Lawder; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)