A classified video of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, shows a sudden attack by armed men who broke through the compound’s gates within minutes, according to lawmakers who saw the recording.
“People showed up at the gate very quickly, breached it, and poured inside,” said Representative Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who attended a closed-door briefing today with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, on the Sept. 11 attack.
“It happened very quickly,” said Smith, of Washington state. “They weren’t just standing outside.”
The Obama administration’s initial description of the attack as a spontaneous demonstration that was “hijacked” by militants became an issue in the presidential election and now threatens the prospects for Senate confirmation of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, should President Barack Obama nominate her to succeed the departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Rice delivered the administration’s approved public account of the events on five Sunday television talk shows five days after the attack, while saying the assessment was preliminary. Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner issued a statement Sept. 28 -- 12 days after Rice’s TV appearances -- saying the intelligence community had revised its initial assessment and concluded the assault was “a deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”
“It raised more questions than ever,” Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said after attending the briefing at the Capitol. “It means there should be public hearings or the American people will never know.”
Lawmakers who came to the briefing, which was open to all House members, said the video was paused repeatedly for a narrative explaining what occurred. They were also shown photos of the scene that night and maps of the consulate.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate intelligence committee, described the video last month as a “composite” film that showed the attack unfolding “in real time.”
Representative Charles “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, declined to discuss the video today. He said the video may be declassified in some form when the investigation of the attack is completed.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who attended the briefing, said Clapper told them “there’s an effort to put the events in black and white, and it’s not that simple.”
Clapper also said that the intelligence community believed all along that terrorists were involved in the attacks, “even if that wasn’t in every statement,” she said.
Schakowsky and other lawmakers who attended said the video showed a chaotic scene, with some attackers at the consulate carrying weapons and others without. Some of the people in the video seemed to be looters, they said.
Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, said there also was extensive discussion today about the process by which the administration “talking points” used by Rice were produced. While Green said he was satisfied that Rice did nothing to intentionally mislead people into thinking the attack was “spontaneous,” other lawmakers didn’t hold that view. Questioning about the talking points and her use of them was extensive, Green said.
The talking points said in part, “Demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.” It also said, “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
Intelligence officials have said the administration dropped references to possible al-Qaeda connections to the attack from the talking points to protect intelligence sources and because those links were considered tenuous.
“This was clearly an armed attack,” Smith, of the Armed Services Committee, said. “There’s no question about that. But there were also people there who weren’t armed.”
Describing the attack on two separate buildings that spanned seven or eight hours, Smith said, “It does not appear it was planned more than a few hours in advance. There was no precision to the attack.”
Feinstein has said her committee plans to hold a public hearing on the attack after several closed briefings.
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