Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Premature exoneration: When exactly did the intelligence community change its assessment of the Libya attack?

Image Credit: Pete Souza, White House Flickr Stream

Image Credit: Pete Souza, White House Flickr Stream

Late Friday, the office of the director of national intelligence put out a statement that appeared to exonerate the Obama administration for claiming that the Libya attack was the result of spontaneous protests and not an organized terrorist attack. Shawn Turner, the DNI spokesman, said in a written statement:

In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving.

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.

This was taken by the White House’s defenders as definitive proof that no one in the administration lied. One problem with that pre-mature exoneration: The statement does not say when the DNI “revised our initial assessment.”

The attack took place on September 11. It was not until September 19 that Mathew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acknowledged on Capitol Hill (not in his prepared statement, but in answer to a direct question): “I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.” Only the next day, September 20 — nine days after the attack — did White House spokesman Jay Carney finally declare “It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”

It was self-evident long before that. So the question is when in that 9-day stretch did the intelligence assessment change from a protest gone awry to a “self-evident” terrorist attack? Fox News reported that the intelligence community knew it was a terrorist attack within 24 hours and “actually labeled the attack as terrorism immediately in order to unlock certain federal resources to speed up the response.”

Here are five questions the administration needs to answer post haste:

  1. When did the administration officially declare the Libya attack a terrorist attack to unlock those federal resources?
  2. Was it within 24 hours of the assault, as reported by Fox News, or later?
  3. Was it before or after Susan Rice went on five Sunday shows on September 16th and declared that a “hateful video” had triggered a “spontaneous protest … outside of our consulate in Benghazi” that “spun from there into something much, much more violent.” When was the revised assessment referred to in the DNI statement made?
  4. How soon before Matthew Olsen acknowledged to Congress that what happened in Libya was a terrorist attack had the administration concluded this was the case?
  5. How long did the White House allow the American public to believe that a “spontaneous protest” was to blame when it knew internally that an attack had taken place killing a U.S. ambassador?

The White House owes the American people answers to these questions. A good time to ask them might be at Wednesday’s presidential debate.

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