UPDATE 3-Obama administration investigating Benghazi "terrorist" attack

Susan Cornwell and Mark Hosenball

* White House labels assault on consulate "terrorist" attack

* Lawmakers want answers on envoy's death, security

* Probing possible collusion between attackers, guards

WASHINGTON, Sept 20 (Reuters) - The Obama administration on

Thursday described last week's assault on the U.S. Consulate in

Benghazi, Libya, as a "terrorist attack" and announced a panel

to investigate the events that took the lives of the ambassador

and three other Americans.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave lawmakers a

classified briefing as more questions were raised in Congress

about whether sufficient security was in place before the Sept.

11 attack in which the Americans, including Ambassador

Christopher Stevens, died.

Clinton said the investigating panel would be chaired by

Thomas Pickering, a retired diplomat who served as U.S.

ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, Nigeria, El Salvador,

Jordan and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The White House said it agreed with an assessment made a day

earlier by a senior counterterrorism official that the violence

in Benghazi was an act of terrorism.

"It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a

terrorist attack," White House spokesman Jay Carney told

reporters traveling with President Barack Obama. Carney did not

go any further in clarifying whether the administration believed

the attack was planned.

Some Republicans said they saw a shift in emphasis from the

White House's earlier presentation of the violence as a protest

outside the Benghazi consulate that got out of control.

Debate over whether militant groups planned the assault or

whether the violence resulted from protests against a film

insulting to Islam has become U.S. election-year fodder.

"The story now has been changed. There was a planned,

premeditated attack," Republican Representative Howard McKeon,

chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters

on Capitol Hill.

The investigative panel, whose creation is generally

required by law when someone is killed or seriously injured at a

U.S. mission abroad, is made up of four people chosen by the

secretary of state and the U.S. intelligence community. It is

expected to write a report on whether security systems and

procedures were adequate, and could recommend improvements.

Its work is separate from an FBI probe of the Benghazi

attack, which happened on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11

attacks on the United States.

U.S. authorities are investigating possible collusion

between the militants who launched the attack and locally hired

Libyan personnel guarding the facility, three U.S. officials

said on condition of anonymity. So far there is

no proof of this, they said.


Lawmakers have demanded answers on how Stevens, a State

Department information management officer and two security

agents could have died in the incident. Stevens' death marked

the first time a U.S. ambassador had been killed in such an

attack since 1979.

U.S. embassies in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen have been

attacked and U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and

North Africa have been the target of protests sparked by a film

made in California that depicts the Prophet Mohammad as a

womanizer and a fool.

Appearing at a forum sponsored by Univision and Facebook,

and hosted by the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida,

Obama said the United States would not retreat from the region.

"My message to the presidents of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and

these other countries: we want to be a partner with you, we will

work with you and we stand on the side of democracy," he said.

"But democracy is not just an election, it's also are you

looking out for minority rights, are you respecting freedom of

speech, are you treating women fairly?" he added.

"The one thing we can't do is withdraw from the region. The

United States continues to be the one indispensable nation."

Speaking at a news conference before she briefed U.S.

lawmakers, Clinton also stressed the importance of U.S.

relations with such countries despite questions about whether

the United States should continue aid following the protests.

A congressional committee wrote to Clinton on Thursday

demanding information about the attack in Benghazi, including

all U.S. security analyses and threat assessments before the

violence and any documents that clarify whether the attack was

spontaneous or premeditated.

"The American people have a right to know the facts about

this egregious attack on U.S. sovereign territory," Republican

Representative Jason Chaffetz wrote to Clinton, setting an Oct.

4 deadline for her to provide the information.

Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services

Committee, attended part of the briefing Thursday with Clinton

and said - as Reuters reported on Wednesday - that the U.S.

ambassador to Libya had five security guards with him. Smith

said he thought that was an appropriate number.

Asked about possible collusion between Libyans working for

the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and the attackers, Smith said,

"There is no evidence of that at this time."