The Office of the Director of National Intelligence appeared to be trying to shield the Obama administration from a political backlash over its original accounts of the deadly Benghazi attack.
WASHINGTON — Extremists from groups linked to al-Qaida struck the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack,” the top U.S. intelligence agency said Friday, as it took responsibility for the Obama administration’s initial claims the assault grew from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video.
The statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) appeared to have two goals: updating the public on the latest findings of the investigation into the assault, and shielding the Obama administration from a political backlash over its original accounts.
“In the immediate aftermath (of the assault), there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” spokesman Shawn Turner said in the statement.
The DNI coordinates and sets policies for the 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies.
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U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the Sept. 11 assault staged by scores of assailants.
Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have accused the administration of misleading the country about the nature of the attack to protect Obama’s claim that his policies have hurt al-Qaida’s ability to launch attacks and eased anti-U.S. hatred in the Muslim world.
Turner said U.S. intelligence agencies’ understanding of what happened in Benghazi has evolved as they’ve collected and analyzed information. “As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
The statement did not quiet the backlash. Shortly after it was issued, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for the resignation of Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the first senior official to detail the administration’s initial account that the attack was spontaneous.
In initial accounts, Rice and other senior administration officials insisted there was no indication the attack was “preplanned.” It grew, they said, from a spontaneous protest outside the consulate inspired by the violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.
Testifying before a Senate committee Sept. 19, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, became the first senior administration official to publicly call the assault a terrorist attack.