WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Within hours of last month's attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, President Barack Obama's administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved, three government sources said.
Despite these reports, in public statements and private meetings, top U.S. officials spent nearly two weeks highlighting intelligence suggesting that the attacks were spontaneous protests against an anti-Muslim film, while playing down the involvement of organized militant groups.
It was not until last Friday that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's office issued an unusual public statement, which described how the picture that intelligence agencies presented to U.S. policymakers had "evolved" into an acknowledgement that the attacks were "deliberate and organized" and "carried out by extremists."
The existence of the early reports appears to raise fresh questions about the Obama administration's public messaging about the attack as it seeks to fend off Republican charges that the White House failed to prevent a terrorist strike that left a U.S. ambassador and three others dead.
"What we're seeing now is the picture starting to develop that it wasn't a problem with the intelligence that was given, it's what they did with the intelligence that they were given," Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on Tuesday.
"This picture is still a little fuzzy but it is starting to come into focus and it appears that there were, very early on, some indications that there was jihadist participation in the event," he said.
The Obama administration has strongly defended its public accounts of what happened in Benghazi, and said its understanding has evolved as additional information came in.
"At every step of the way, the administration has based its public statements on the best assessments that were provided by the intelligence community. As the intelligence community learned more information, they updated Congress and the American people on it," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Some officials said U.S. spy agencies tried to avoid drawing premature conclusions about how the violence began and who organized it.
"Unless you have very good reports that strongly suggest who was behind the attack for sure, it is prudent to be careful, because placing emphasis publicly, even tentatively, on any one group or groups too soon can lead everyone down the wrong path," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Republicans have sought to make the shifting stories told by administration officials about the attack, and inadequate security precautions at the U.S. diplomatic site in Libya, a major issue in the presidential campaign leading up to the November 6 election.
Two House Republicans said they would hold Congress' first hearing on the matter on October 10.
The stream of intelligence flowing into Washington within hours of the Benghazi attacks contained data from communications intercepts and U.S. informants, which were then fashioned into polished initial assessments for policymakers.
Officials familiar with them said they contained evidence that members of a militant faction, Ansar al-Sharia, as well as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, were involved in the assaults.
The report did not allege the attacks were a reaction to the anti-Muslim film, but acknowledged it was possible that the attackers sought to use an outbreak of violence in Cairo over the film, which insulted the Prophet Mohammad, as a pretext for attacks.
One official said initial reporting suggested militants had begun planning attacks on U.S. targets in Benghazi before September 11, but may well have decided to use the protests as a pretext for moving forward that day.
Reuters reported on September 12, citing U.S. government officials, that the attacks may have been planned and organized in advance, and that members of Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM may have been involved.
Yet on September 15, administration officials, relying upon what they said was other information from intelligence agencies, circulated to members of Congress a set of talking points prepared by the CIA that purported to summarize what U.S. intelligence knew.
The talking points said: "The currently available information suggests that the 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."
The document then noted that "There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations." It contained no further elaboration.
The talking points reflected information that White House officials and Congress were given in closed-door intelligence briefings in the days immediately after the attacks. In one such session, CIA director David Petraeus used lines which paralleled the talking points.
"It seems increasingly clear that the briefings provided to Congress and the public about the Benghazi attack were at best incomplete and at worst misleading," Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Republican vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Reuters.
"Within hours of the attack, intelligence assessments highlighted the role of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, but the administration focused instead on a video that appears to have had little, if anything, to do with the violence in Benghazi," Chambliss said.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also appeared to use information contained in the talking points on Sunday September 16 when she made five appearances on TV talk shows.
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Rice said the Benghazi attacks were triggered by a "hateful video," which prompted a "spontaneous protest" that "spun from there into something more violent." Regarding militants, she said only that it was "clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence."
Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican, has urged Rice to resign over the issue, a call the State Department has rejected.
The Daily Beast website reported last week that in the hours after the attack, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored communications between members of Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM. Ansar al-Sharia operatives "bragged" about their attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission and acted as if they were "subordinate" to AQIM, it quoted a U.S. official as saying.
It now appears questionable that the anti-Muslim film, which sparked a violent protest against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier on September 11, played a significant role in the Benghazi attack. Some U.S. officials have not foreclosed that possibility.
But Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said he had never seen intelligence reporting to support such an assertion.
"I haven't seen anything that shows that the intelligence community said on the day of, or the immediate day following, that this was a spontaneous event," he said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell. Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson