The next day, Nuland faced pointed questions about Rice’s remarks from the State Department press corps, which noted that even the Libyan president was describing the events as a coordinated terrorist operation. Fielding a barrage of questions from reporters trying to pin down the administration’s position in light of the divergent statements, Nuland defended Rice’s remarks with a repeated line about the ambassador’s statements accurately reflecting “our government’s initial assessment.”
On Sept. 19, as the video story began to collapse amid news reports from Libya and intelligence leaks from Washington that pointed to a premeditated attack, the administration’s story underwent yet another alteration in what seems to be an effort to reconcile the dueling narratives.
At a congressional hearing, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, offered testimony that wove together both versions. He called it a “terrorist attack,” but also deemed it an “opportunistic attack.” He made no specific mention of a preceding demonstration over the video – witnesses interviewed by McClatchy for stories on Sept. 12 and 13 had said there was no protest – but did say that the violence “evolved and escalated over several hours.”
“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack,” Olsen testified.
Under intense pressure from Republican critics over the handling of the Benghazi aftermath, the Obama administration finally came full circle on Sept. 20, returning to what Libyan and U.S. officials had said at the very beginning: the attack on the Benghazi consulate was separate from the region’s video protests and bore the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.
Carney, the White House spokesman who’d only days earlier tied the incident to the video, told reporters it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” He cited Olsen’s testimony that pointed to the involvement of militant groups operating in eastern Libya, “including possible participation by elements of al Qaida,” especially its North African branch.
In the next week, as the Republican-led political storm over the administration’s shifting accounts grew, the office of the nation’s top intelligence official announced that as a result of new information, it had determined that the consulate had been hit by a "deliberate and organized attack," and that it was responsible for the narrative that the assault began “spontaneously."
Yet the statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence failed to clear up how the administration came up with its assertion that the attack was launched during a protest against the video. Issued by a spokesman and not Director of National Intelligence James Clapper himself, the statement made no reference to a protest or the video.