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Benghazi attack called ‘terrorist’

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The U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed last week in Libya died “in the course of a terrorist attack,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers Wednesday.

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, repeated earlier statements by the Obama administration that initial conclusions do not point to a planned assault. Instead, he said, “the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack,” in which heavily armed militants took advantage of an ongoing demonstration at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

But Olsen went beyond those conclusions to say that the people involved in the violent assault appeared to have come from several militant groups, including localized extremists in eastern Libya as well as affiliates of al-Qaeda.

“The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition,” Olsen told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The hearing came amid mounting questions about security at the consulate and whether the State Department was insufficiently responsive to previous attacks in Benghazi and the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.

“I’m just stunned and appalled that there wasn’t better security for all of the American personnel at that consulate, given the high-threat environment,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Olsen, Associate Deputy FBI Director Kevin Perkins and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at the hearing.

Collins also sharply disagreed with Olsen’s statement that the attack did not appear to be planned. “Based on the briefings I have had, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion,” she said. “I just don’t think that people come to protests equipped with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and other heavy weapons. And the reports of complicity — and they are many — with Libyan guards who were assigned to guard the consulate also suggest to me that this was premeditated.”

In the wake of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack and violent demonstrations at U.S. missions across the Muslim world over the past 10 days, a number of diplomatic posts remain closed “as we continue to evaluate security,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria J. Nuland said Wednesday. She listed embassies in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen among those shuttered, as well as consulates in Alexandria, Egypt, and Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar in Pakistan.

The demonstrations purportedly began as a protest against a YouTube video, produced privately in the United States, that ridiculed the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The State Department this week was girding for possible additional protests related to the planned publication of cartoons dealing with Muhammad in a French magazine. France has said it would temporarily close 20 of its diplomatic missions this weekend.

Many lawmakers have expressed surprise at learning that U.S. Marine guards are not present at all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

The State Department has emphasized that perimeter security for the missions is the responsibility of host governments, with “inside the wall” protection often provided by contractors. The first responsibility of the Marines, administration officials have said, is the protection of classified information rather than personnel.

Olsen repeated that U.S. intelligence had no specific warning of a threat to the consulate. But he said that many of the questions raised at the hearing would be more specifically addressed Thursday at a closed-door administration briefing for lawmakers.

Collins and committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) have called on the State Department’s inspector general to investigate U.S. security in Benghazi prior to the attacks.

In remarks Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that consulate security was “robust,” and that a full evaluation of threats was made there and at other diplomatic posts before the Sept. 11 anniversary.

“But let me state the obvious again,” Clinton said. “Our diplomats engage in dangerous work, and it’s the nature of diplomacy in fragile societies and conflict zones to be aware of the necessity for security but to also continue the important diplomatic work that has to go on.”

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