“We are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, whether it was premeditated, whether they had any external contacts, whether there was any link, until we have a chance to investigate along with the Libyans,” Nuland said.
That evening, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over a State Department reception marking an Islamic holiday; her remarks made no mention of a protest and made only passing reference to reports that listed “inflammatory material posted on the Internet” as a possible motive.
One of the speakers, Ali Suleiman Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to the United States, told Clinton and the other attendees in no uncertain terms that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.
“I hope that this sad incident which happened, this terrorist attack which took place against the American consulate in Libya, it will tell us how much we have to work closely,” Aujali said, according to the official transcript.
The story, however, began to change the next day, Sept. 14.
With images of besieged U.S. missions in the Middle East still leading the evening news, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney became the first official to back away from the earlier declaration that the Benghazi assault was a “complex attack” by extremists. Instead, Carney told reporters, authorities “have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.” He added that there was no reason to think that the Benghazi attack wasn’t related to the video, given that the clip had sparked protests in many Muslim cities.
“The unrest that we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims, find offensive,” Carney said.
When pressed by reporters who pointed out evidence that the violence in Benghazi was preplanned, Carney said that “news reports” had speculated about the motive. He noted again that “the unrest around the region has been in response to this video.”
Carney then launched into remarks that read like talking points in defense of the U.S. decision to intervene in last year’s uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi: that post-Gadhafi Libya, he said, is “one of the more pro-American countries in the region,” that it’s led by a new government “that has just come out of a revolution,” and that the lack of security capabilities there “is not necessarily reflective of anything except for the remarkable transformation that’s been going on in the region.”
By that Sunday, Sept. 16, the evolution of the narrative was complete when Rice, the U.N. ambassador, showed up on all five major morning talk shows to make the most direct public connection yet between the Benghazi assault and the incendiary video.
While she couched her remarks in caveats – “based on the information we have at present,” for example – Rice clearly intended to make the link before a large American audience.
According to the then-current assessment, Rice told ABC’s “This Week,” the attack was “a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response to what had transpired in Cairo” – a reference to a demonstration triggered by the anti-Muslim video in which hundreds breached the U.S. Embassy compound there and tore down the American flag. Rice repeated the claim throughout her talk-show appearances and later blamed intelligence services for giving her incorrect information before she went on air.