WASHINGTON, DC — Extremists from groups linked to al Qaida struck the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack,” the top U.S. intelligence agency said Friday, as it took responsibility for the Obama administration’s initial claims that the deadly assault grew from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.
The unusual statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence appeared to have two goals: updating the public on the latest findings of the investigation into the assault, and shielding the White House from a political backlash over its original accounts.
“In the immediate aftermath (of the assault), there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” spokesman Sean Turner said in the statement. “We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates and sets policies for the 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies, is led by retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in August 2010.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault staged by scores of assault rifle- and rocket-propelled grenade-toting assailants on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have accused the administration of misleading the country about the nature of the attack to protect Obama’s campaign claim that his policies have hurt al Qaida’s ability to launch attacks and eased anti-U.S. hatred in the Muslim world.
In his statement, Turner said that U.S. intelligence agencies’ understanding of what happened in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, has evolved as they’ve collected and analyzed information on the incident. “As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists,” he said.
“It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate,” he said. “However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, al Qaida.”
Turner didn’t name a specific group. Other U.S. officials have said that they were focusing on the possible involvement of the North African affiliate of the terrorist network, al Qaida in the Maghreb, known as AQIM, and local Islamic militant groups.
The statement did not quiet the political backlash.
Shortly after it was issued, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for the resignation of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was the first senior official to detail the administration’s initial account that the attack was spontaneous during appearances on Sunday morning television talk shows.
Rice “was the vehicle by which they transmitted this misleading message to the American people and the world,” King told CNN.
Rice’s spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, responded by noting that Rice’s comments “were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was underway” and that she was providing “the best information . . . that the administration had at the time . . . provided by the U.S. intelligence community.”
In their initial accounts, Rice and other senior administration officials insisted there was no indication the attack was “pre-planned.” It grew, they said, from a spontaneous protest outside the consulate that was inspired by the violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a video denigrating the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. The video, which has triggered a rash of violent anti-American protests across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, was made in the United States.
The accounts, however, were quickly challenged. President Mohammad Magarief, the head of the Libyan National Congress, the recently elected interim government, said that the assault was organized and planned by foreigners, some with links to al Qaida, involved members of a local Islamist militant group, and was deliberately timed for the anniversary of 9/11.
Witnesses corroborated Magarief’s account in interviews with McClatchy, saying there was no protest before the attack, which they described as complex and well-organized.
Senior lawmakers also questioned the administration’s version.
“It is my conclusion that it was a planned, coordinated event,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told McClatchy in an interview.
Senior Republican lawmakers cited the differences in questioning the administration account as well as the security around the consulate. They pointed out that Americans in Libya were known to have been under threat, Benghazi had seen a rash of attacks on foreign targets by Islamist militants, and the country remains haunted by armed groups nearly a year after the U.S.-backed ouster of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Appearing before a Senate committee on Sept. 19, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, became the first senior administration official to publicly confirm that Stevens and the three other Americans died in a terrorist attack.
It took another day before White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
Obama, facing a tough re-election campaign, has refrained from calling the incident a terrorist attack even as he decried the incident and the deaths of the Americans before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Pressed on Wednesday by reporters on why Obama hasn’t used the term, Carney replied, “It is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.”