By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria
(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 the House of Representatives intelligence committee that "there were extremists in the group" that launched the initial attack on the diplomatic mission, describing them as affiliates of al Qaeda and other extremist groups, said Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the committee's top Democrat. "The fact is that he clarified it."
Another lawmaker, Republican Representative Peter King, said Petraeus' account in the closed-door session differed from the assessment that 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 later appeared before the Senate intelligence panel. His appearances before lawmakers came the week after he quit as CIA chief because of an extramarital 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."
Petraeus, a retired Army four-star general, slipped into the closed sessions unseen by a swarm of media.
The assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi has turned into a flash point between President Barack Obama and Republicans, who accuse the White House of misleading the public in the days following the attack.
Some Republicans have suggested that Obama and his aides wanted to downplay the idea they had failed to prevent a terrorist attack, which might have dampened the president's re-election chances on November 6. Obama has denied that implication.
Petraeus' testimony to the House and Senate intelligence committees seems unlikely to dampen the controversy over why the Obama administration had asserted for days after the Benghazi attack that it had sprung from a spontaneous protest prompted by an anti-Muslim film.
Republicans have targeted Obama's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, who in five Sunday talk show appearances on September 16 said the assault was prompted by the video and then morphed into a more violent act. But she told CBS's "Face the Nation" that day that it was "clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence."
Rice aides and White House officials have said that she had based her remarks on talking points provided by the CIA.
Lawmakers appeared to treat the question of his 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.
The affair has raised questions about whether any classified information was divulged to Broadwell that would affect national security. So far, FBI investigators have not discovered anything to suggest that was the case, law enforcement sources said.
Before his resignation, Petraeus had gone to Libya to interview people about what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when there was a series of escalating attacks on the diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA annex.
Ruppersberger said the committee learned on Thursday during a closed hearing in which it saw a real-time film of the events in Benghazi that the attack on the diplomatic mission was different than the subsequent attack on the nearby annex.
"The first incident was a lot different than the second incident in the annex," he said. The attack on the mission involved looters and people setting buildings on fire, while the attack on the annex was "well-organized" and involved people who had experience in conducting attacks, he said.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)