Obama administration officials admitted on Thursday that they were concerned after the White House began saying that the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was spontaneous and not the work of terrorists.
Events were too uncertain, and suspicions had been aroused, officials told ABC News.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday that the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, on the anniversary of 9/11 was not only carried out by terrorists — it was pre-meditated.
“As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place,” Panetta said, “it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack.”
The White House first suggested the assault was spontaneous, the result of an anti-Muslim video that incited mobs throughout the region.
“Let’s be clear, these protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Sept. 14.
But when ABC News pressed Carney on whether that included the Benghazi attack, Carney said: “We certainly don’t know. We don’t know otherwise. We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said during a round of the Sunday morning talk shows on Sept. 16: “Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response to what had transpired in Cairo.
“In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
“We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to – or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo,” Rice said. “And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons… And it then evolved from there.”
White House officials acknowledged on Thursday that assessments have changed over time as intelligence has been confirmed, but they insist that no information was given in bad faith and there was no attempt to play down the attack.
Sources told ABC News, however, that intelligence officials on the ground immediately suspected the attack was not tied to the movie at all. The attackers knew that Stevens had been trying to flee — to a so-called safe house half a mile away.
That building was hit with insurgent mortars, suggesting the terrorists knew what they were doing.
As of Thursday afternoon, officials from the Obama administration were not even 100 percent certain that the protest of the anti-Muslim film in Benghazi occurred outside the U.S. diplomatic post.
In a closed-door briefing with top officials, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the mortar attack on the safe house as suggesting that the terrorist attack was one of opportunity, not pre-meditation, since the mortars were not used to attack the consulate earlier in the day.
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