In the first 48 hours after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, senior Obama administration officials strongly alluded to a terrorist assault and repeatedly declined to link it to an anti-Muslim video that drew protests elsewhere in the region, transcripts of briefings show.
The administration’s initial accounts, however, changed dramatically in the following days, according to a review of briefing transcripts and administration statements, with a new narrative emerging Sept. 16 when U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice asserted in a series of TV appearances that the best information available indicated that the attack had spun off from a protest over the video.
What prompted that pivot remains a mystery amid a closely contested presidential election and Republican allegations that President Barack Obama intentionally used outrage over the video to mask administration policy missteps that led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. The issue is sure to arise when Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney meet Monday to debate foreign policy.
Paul Pillar, a former top U.S. intelligence analyst on the Middle East, said that it’s natural with such incidents for accounts to change as new information is gathered. “You have not only a fog of war situation, but fragmentary, incomplete information, and as the responsible agencies develop and acquire better information, the explanations are naturally going to evolve,” he said.
But the administration’s statements offer an ironic twist on the “fog-of-war” phenomenon: They apparently were more accurate on the day after the attacks than they were when Rice made her TV appearances four days later. Administration officials so far have provided no detailed explanation for the change.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment for this report beyond saying that, "These issues have been covered in countless comments by the president and briefings."
State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner declined to address specifics. "An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi. Once we have the board’s comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters," he said in an email.
On the day after the attack, transcripts show, senior administration officials, briefing reporters, declined in response to three direct questions to link the Benghazi assaults to protests over the video. One senior official told reporters during the briefing that “unidentified Libyan extremists” launched what was “clearly a complex attack.” The official isn’t named because such briefings typically come on the condition of anonymity.
At campaign stops in Colorado and Nevada the next day, Sept. 13, Obama referred to the Benghazi assault as “an act of terror.” At the State Department press briefing that day, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked directly and repeatedly whether there was a link between the video protests and the attack on the U.S. consulate.
While she mentioned that commentary on social media was making the link “to this reprehensible video,” Nuland emphasized several times that there wasn’t enough information for officials to make that leap, even though some news reports, including those of The New York Times and Agence France Presse, were citing unnamed witnesses in Libya who said that anger over the video was the reason the consulate was targeted.
“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.
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.
By Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay