WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials sought to explain Friday why the White House’s understanding of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is “evolving.”
Facing a barrage of Republican criticism about what the administration knew and when about the attack, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement Friday that laid out how officials came to understand the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. At the same time, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations issued a statement explaining her early descriptions of the attack.
In the days after the attack, the administration said it believed it was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and ignited mob protests on U.S. embassies around the Middle East and in North Africa. Now the administration has begun to call it a terrorist attack carried out by al-Qaida-linked militants and explain that it was a planned attack distinct from the mob protests in the region.
Republicans have seized on the White House’s changing narrative, saying the administration was too slow to label it a terrorist attack because, they said, the White House did not want to admit its policies failed to defeat al-Qaida and quell anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world.
“Throughout our investigation, we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving,” DNI spokesman Shawn Turner’s statement said.
A spokeswoman for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice also sought to explain comments that Rice made early in the investigation saying there was no evidence the Benghazi attack was premeditated.
“During her appearances on the Sunday talk shows Sept. 16, 2012, Ambassador Rice’s comments were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was under way that would provide the definitive accounting of the events that took place in Benghazi,” said Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. “At every turn Ambassador Rice provided — and said she was providing — the best information and the best assessment that the administration had at the time, based on what was provided to Ambassador Rice and other senior U.S. officials by the U.S. intelligence community.”
Further intelligence might be slow to arrive. The FBI team that arrived in Libya last week to investigate the incident can’t get to the scene of the attack because it is too dangerous, said two law enforcement officials.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN that Rice’s explanation on the talk shows was “such a failure of foreign policy message and leadership” and “such a misstatement of facts” that “I believe she should resign.”