The office of the nation’s spy chief issued a statement Friday defending the Obama administration’s accounts of the siege on a U.S. mission in Libya, saying it became clear only in the aftermath that it was “a deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”
The statement appeared aimed at quieting criticism, mostly from Republicans, of the administration’s shifting characterizations of a Sept. 11 assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. Officials initially described the attack as spontaneous but in recent days have said it was an act of terrorism with links to al-Qaeda.
The release from the office of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. came as lawmakers sought more details about the siege in Benghazi. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to the State Department on Thursday posing questions about intelligence in the period leading up to the attack and the adequacy of the security at U.S. compounds.
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper, said U.S. agencies have altered their assessments based on intelligence that has emerged through an ongoing investigation.
“In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” Turner said. That information was conveyed to administration officials as well as members of Congress.
But analysts have since “revised our initial assessments to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists,” Turner said. “Some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qaeda.”
The release marks a rare instance in which the intelligence director’s office has weighed in through a public statement on details of an event overseas, let alone one that remains under investigation during a presidential campaign. In an e-mail, Turner indicated that the director’s office, while seeking to stay out of the political fray, became convinced that it should clarify the intelligence community’s position.
“I put out the message because I think it’s important that people understand that early reports are often wrong or incomplete, but our intelligence community continues to work around the clock to gather details and understand exactly what happened in Benghazi,” Turner said.
The evolving intelligence picture may explain why administration officials — including Susan E. Rice, ambassador to the United Nations — seemed adamant early on that the attack was part of a spontaneous protest triggered by an anti-Islamic video produced in the United States. It wasn’t until Sept. 20 that the head of the National Counterterrorism Center described the assault as a terrorist attack — a description echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week.
Republicans have accused the administration of seeking to play down terrorist links at a time when President Obama has emphasized the degradation of al-Qaeda as a signature foreign policy success.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and an administration ally, has deflected Republican demands that the State Department submit a report on the attack to Congress within 30 days. Instead, the panel submitted a letter seeking answers as a State Department review led by former U.S. ambassador Tom Pickering gets underway.