The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was planned and “not spontaneous,” a U.S. intelligence official has told The Washington Times.
The official’s statement rebuts news reports that there is no evidence the attack was planned, even as the intelligence community says al Qaeda-linked militants carried out the deadly assault. The official, who is not authorized to talk to the news media, asked to remain anonymous.
The news reports support the Obama administration’s use of the word “spontaneous” to describe a mob assault that ended in the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republicans charge that the continual use of “spontaneous” days after the attack misled the American people about what happened and what could have been done to protect Stevens and the others.
The U.S. intelligence official, who has access to a wide swath of reporting from various spy agencies, told The Times that a few days after the attack, “We looked at it and said, ‘There is enough information here. There’s a body of evidence here that we resolvedly say, tells us, that this was not a spontaneous attack.’ We adjusted our assessment.”
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have pressed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to disclose the exact reporting he received in order to tell the White House initially that the attack was “spontaneous” and linked to protests in the region over an anti-Islam video on YouTube.
The director’s immediate assessment differs from those of other intelligence agencies.
The Times reported Oct. 2 that the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency on Sept. 12 briefed higher-ups that the attack was planned and carried out by extremists, likely a group called the Ansar al-Shariah Brigades.
The briefings, which would have been circulated within the administration, made no mention of a spontaneous protest or the video, said a source familiar with the briefing.
In addition, The Associated Press reported Friday that the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of the lethal attack that evidence showed it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob.
Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Times that the differences in the assessments could be attributable to the fact that different agencies are involved.
“If the initial reports were not fully coordinated or consistent, perhaps that’s not too surprising,” Mr. Aftergood said. “We talk about ‘the intelligence community’ as a singular entity, but it actually has many components that function independently. They will not always convey an identical message, particularly in the early hours of a crisis.
“Of course, there is always room for skepticism about these official explanations, but in this case, it’s hard to see how anyone’s interests would have been served by getting it wrong,” he said. “So I’m inclined to chalk it up to confusion and incomplete reporting rather than something more malevolent.”
Bart Bechtel, a former CIA operations officer who supports Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Mr. Clapper’s immediate assessments “stretch credulity.”
“Clapper had to have known the true situation,” Mr. Bechtel said. “However, the White House and State [Department] went out ahead of the [director of national intelligence] and put out the official administration propaganda signaling the line they intended to take. Clapper could follow along or look for another job.”
Obama officials are blaming their inaccurate or, at least, incomplete assessments on Mr. Clapper’s brief to the White House.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Clapper should have waited for more information.
“I think what happened was the director of national intelligence, which we call the DNI, who is a very good individual put out some speaking points on the initial intelligence assessment. I think that was possibly a mistake,” Mrs. Feinstein told the CBS affiliate in San Francisco last week.
The U.S. intelligence official who spoke to The Times defended Mr. Clapper’s action.
The official said that in the first 24 hours after the attack, there were “10 pounds of information that says it’s spontaneous,” including communications intercepts and human sources in the country.
“There’s not a disconnect simply because the preponderance of the information that we had at the time, which was literally being pushed to us — we literally had a bucket of information that suggested it was spontaneous,” the official said.
Other reports that began reaching the DNI indicated otherwise, and the official assessment changed three or four days later.
“Twenty-four hours later, you got two, three, four, five pieces of information, then, yeah, absolutely, we started to revisit it,” the official said. “We have analysts here who work round the clock. And as soon as they have enough, they say, ‘Hey, boss, here’s what it looks like.’ And we changed the assessment.”
The official added: “When one agency, one element, says, ‘We’ve got something that indicates this might not have been spontaneous,’ that’s not ignored. It’s pulled in with the other information.”
The consulate in Benghazi had been attacked at least two times before Sept. 11. In the most serious incident, terrorists placed a homemade bomb at the north gate that blew a huge hole in the wall.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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