Did Obama Spin the Benghazi Attack?

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012

UPDATED 9:20 a.m. 9/28/12

The perpetrators behind the assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, had been looking for an opportunity to attack U.S. facilities in the region for some time, according to an Obama Administration official familiar with the latest intelligence

However, the Administration continues to believe the attack was not pre-planned, but rather was the result of extremists seizing the opportunity presented by protests in neighboring Egypt against an American-made anti-Islamic video.

Members of the Benghazi al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al Sharia, “Saw the events in Cairo and took it upon themselves to seize that opportunity to do something,” the Administration official says. “They may have intended for some time to attack U.S. facilities, but they did so at the time they did to take advantage of Cairo.”

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Anti-Islamic Film)

The best evidence supporting the idea that the attack was cooked up on the fly, the Administration official says, is that it was seven hours into the assault before mortars were used by the attackers. “Their most lethal weapon wasn’t used until 7 hours in, and I think that’s an important data point that speaks to the fact that this was opportunistic and developed over time. They went and they got their buddies and they got their most lethal weapons and they brought it to bear. And ultimately that contributed to the lethality of the attack.”

The picture that is emerging of the attack is substantially different from what appeared in the first hours. News reports and some administration officials initially described the Benghazi attack as “spontaneous” and likened it to the disorganized protests that had started hours earlier at the American embassy in Cairo.

Now the Administration is saying the attack in Benghazi was a terrorist operation by an al Qaeda affiliate and that there may not have been any protests at the Benghazi consulate the day of the attack. “The most credible assessment is that there was not [a protest] ongoing at the time of the attack,” the official says. “That said there are other reports that there were protests in Benghazi and in other parts of the city that day.”

Congressional Republicans are accusing the Obama Administration of intentionally misleading Americans, and the issue has become the subject of intense debate just over a month before the presidential election.

As early as Sept. 12, there were reports of the involvement of extremists in the attack, including in the New York Times and elsewhere, and some official statements seem to reflect that reporting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, said on Sept. 12, “Yesterday, our U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked. Heavily armed militants assaulted the compound and set fire to our buildings.”

(MORE: Timeline: What Happened in Libya and How the U.S. Reacted)

The intelligence community briefed the President and other members of the Administration that the attack had been “spontaneous” or “opportunistic” in the early hours after it occurred. The following Saturday, ahead of a briefing on Capitol Hill, the intelligence community sent the following unclassified briefing points, obtained by Time, to members of Congress:

–The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.  There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.

–This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.

–The investigation is on-going, and the US Government is working with Libyan authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of US citizens.

The strongest evidence to support the Republican’s contention that the Administration was putting a positive spin on events came the following day, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on the Sunday shows to discuss the Benghazi attack.

RICE: Based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is, in fact, what it began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.

But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements — individuals — joined in that — in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution and that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.

MR. SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with him that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?

MS. RICE: We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or pre-planned.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al-Qaida had some part in this?

MS. RICE: Well, we’ll have to find that out. I mean, I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined and escalated the violence, whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremist or al-Qaida itself, I think, is one of the things we’ll have to determine.

Three days later, the head of the National Counter Terrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, when asked by Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee, whether Stevens died in a terrorist attack, was more direct:

“Certainly on that particular question, I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.”

Asked if it was preplanned, Olsen said,

A more complicated question, and one, Mr. Chairman, that we are spending a great deal of time looking at even as we speak. And it’s a — it’s a — obviously, an investigation here is ongoing and facts are being developed continually.

The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy. The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours at our embassy — our diplomatic post in Benghazi. It evolved and escalated over several hours.

It appears that individuals who were certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded that evening and into the — into the morning hours of September 12th. We do know that a number of militants in the area, as I mentioned, are well-armed and maintain those arms. What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack.

Again, we’re still developing facts and still looking for any indications of substantial advanced planning; we just haven’t seen that at this point.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Benghazi attack was linked to an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa. “Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions… and they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”

On Thursday, House Republicans sent a letter [pdf] to President Obama saying they were “disturbed by the public statements made by members of the Administration that would lead the American public to believe this attack was a protest gone wrong, rather than what it truly was.” Four GOP Senators wrote Rice saying, “By the date of your comments, it was already clear that the attack in Libya was a terrorist attack.”

Aside from the Administration’s initial representation of the attack, there are several important questions that remain:

-What was Stevens doing in Benghazi?

-Have any perpetrators been detained?

-Are they in American or Libyan custody, or in the custody of another power?

-Are they being questioned by U.S. officials?

Administration officials declined to answer.

UPDATE: Regarding Rice’s statements on Sept. 16, the spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Erin Pelton, says, “During her appearances on the Sunday talk shows September 16, 2012, Ambassador Rice’s comments were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was underway that would provide the definitive accounting of the events that took place in Benghazi.  At every turn Ambassador Rice provided–and said she was providing–the best information and the best assessment that the Administration had at the time, based on what was provided to Ambassador Rice and other senior U.S. officials by the U.S. intelligence community.”

MORE: Agents of Outrage: Behind the Middle East’s Anti-American Violence