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 administrations initial claims that the deadly assault grew from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.
The unusual statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence appeared to have two goals: updating the public on the latest findings of the investigation into the assault, and shielding the White House 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. We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates and sets policies for the 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies, is led by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in August 2010.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault staged by scores of assault rifle- and rocket-propelled grenade-toting assailants on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have accused the administration of misleading the country about the nature of the attack to protect Obamas campaign claim that his policies have hurt al Qaidas ability to launch attacks and eased anti-U.S. hatred in the Muslim world.
In his statement, Turner said that U.S. intelligence agencies understanding of what happened in Benghazi, Libyas second largest city, has evolved as theyve collected and analyzed information on the incident. 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, he said.
It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate, he said. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, al Qaida.
Turner didnt name a specific group. Other U.S. officials have said that they were focusing on the possible involvement of the North African affiliate of the terrorist network, al Qaida in the Maghreb, known as AQIM, and local Islamic militant groups.
The statement did not quiet the political backlash.
Shortly after it was issued, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for the resignation of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was the first senior official to detail the administrations initial account that the attack was spontaneous during appearances on Sunday morning television talk shows.
Rice was the vehicle by which they transmitted this misleading message to the American people and the world, King told CNN.
Rices spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, responded by noting that Rices comments were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was underway and that she was providing the best information . . . that the administration had at the time . . . provided by the U.S. intelligence community.