In the hours after the attacks, Libyan guards told McClatchy there were no protests leading up to the attack and that they were unaware of the protests against an inflammatory film about Prophet Muhammad in neighboring Egypt. Instead, witnesses called the attack brazen, saying it lasted for more than two hours and overwhelmed the handful of security troops at the consulate.
In addition, State Department officials watched the attack in real time from security cameras around the consulate compound, which showed no signs of a protest beforehand.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers earlier this month that the agency had secretly assessed that al Qaida-linked gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate and CIA annex but that classified references to the terrorist group were cut from the talking points on which Rice relied on for the television interviews.
Rice and Morell told the three Republican senators Tuesday that the talking points the intelligence community provided and the initial assessment on which they were based were incorrect and that there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.
“While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case the intelligence assessment has evolved,” Rice said in a statement after her meeting with the senators. “We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved.”
A U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy that the talking points were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks, if needed. They were never meant to be definitive and it was noted that the assessment may change, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“It wasn’t until after they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory information about how the assault began,” the official said. “Finding the right balance between keeping the public informed and protecting sensitive information is never easy and that was true here. There was absolutely no intent to misinform.”
Rice’s explanation didn’t wash with McCain, Graham or Ayotte.
“Bottom line: I’m more concerned now than I was before that the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya, by Ambassador Rice, I think, does not do justice to the reality at the time, and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong,” Graham said. “I’m more convinced than ever that it was bad – it was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice and President Obama three weeks before an election.”
Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and Nancy A. Youssef in Cairo contributed to this article.