* White House emphasized role of anti-Muslim film
* Republican lawmakers question administration's use of
* Libya violence now an issue in presidential campaign
By Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON Oct 2 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
"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
"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 Nov.
Two House Republicans said they would hold Congress' first
hearing on the matter on Oct. 10.
CIA TALKING POINTS
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
The officials did not allege the attacks were a reaction to
the anti-Muslim film, but they 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
One official said initial reporting suggested militants had
begun planning attacks on U.S. targets in Benghazi before Sept.
11, but may well have decided to use the protests as a pretext
for moving forward that day.
Reuters reported on Sept. 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 Sept. 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.
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,
"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,"
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also
appeared to use information contained in the talking points on
Sunday Sept. 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
Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican, has urged
Rice to resign over the issue, a call the State Department has
A ROLE FOR ANTI-MUSLIM FILM?
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 Sept. 11, played a significant role in the Benghazi
attack. Some U.S. officials have not foreclosed that
But Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said
he had never seen intelligence reporting to support such an
"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.