When gunmen struck the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 of this year, the response from American officials was almost simultaneous: They immediately set about collecting information about the attackers, some of whom were quickly identified as foreigners, and tracing links from them to known extremist groups, a knowledgeable source has told Yahoo News.
The source's description came as fresh news accounts cast doubt on the White House's insistence that it has been forthright all along about what it knew about the attack. (I tweeted on Sept. 21 that this same source informed Yahoo News that the administration privately labeled the attack as terrorism on "Day One.")
"Friendly Libyans were saying almost immediately that the organized attackers (not the protesters) seemed to be mostly foreigners. By the 13th, people were beginning to be identified and rolled up," the source, who has been critical of the administration in the past, told Yahoo News. One early asset: Social media, where videos and photos of the attack gave intelligence officials early clues to what really happened.
"In this case, the intel has been spot-on from the beginning," the source said. American intelligence reached the conclusion that the assault on the consulate was terrorism "on Day One" and "the Brits, the French, Italians all said the same thing … within 48 hours." The source agreed to detail the American response to the tragedy on condition of anonymity.
The day after the attack, President Barack Obama used his first public remarks on the tragedy to declare that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." That contradicts Republican charges that the president has refused to label the attack as "terrorism."
The issue is not merely an inside-the-Beltway word game. A formal finding of terrorism enabled the U.S. government to respond with more military and intelligence assets than if the attack had been judged to be merely a criminal act.
But top aides, including Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, argued in the days after the attack that the violence was linked to an Internet video that ridicules Islam. That film has sparked angry demonstrations across the Muslim world. Carney eventually said it was "self-evident" that it was terrorism—a day after National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen told senators that it was, while insisting there was no evidence of "significant ... planning." Olsen also said the administration was looking at "connections" between the attackers and al-Qaida, including a regional offshoot, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Rice told NBC News on Sept. 16, five days after the attack, that "putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo; almost a copycat of -- of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video."
"What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding," Rice said.
Obama himself told "The View" this week that the sophistication of the attack showed it "wasn't just a mob action."
Administration officials have underlined that there is an FBI investigation into the attack, and said they will not offer definitive conclusions into what happened in Benghazi until that probe wraps up. They have also accused Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, of trying to score political points with the death of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, who died as a result of the attack.
"Let's be clear about this: Every step of the way, the information that we have provided to you and the general public about the attack in Benghazi has been based on the best intelligence we've had and the assessments of our intelligence community," Carney told reporters Thursday.
"During her appearances on the Sunday talk shows September 16, 2012, Ambassador Rice's comments were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was underway that would provide the definitive accounting of the events that took place in Benghazi," said a spokeswoman for Rice, Erin Pelton. "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."
But the anonymous source pointed to the relative silence from Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
"They knew the real story from the beginning and were not paraded around to make statements," the source told Yahoo News. "Understand that the first bits of information from something like this are usually not reliable, but at the end of 24 hours, folks should have a pretty good idea of what happened ... or they are not doing their job."
Asked about the evolving administration line, the anonymous source said that "confusion and misinformation always helps an operational response."
"How much is subjective, but it is always good not to let your opponent have insight into what you know and don't know," the source said. "However, as you can tell, this was a clumsy, some would characterize (it as) very sophomoric, response by the administration" at the communications level.