Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's office on Friday tried to explain the shifting public explanations for who was behind the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya. DNI public affairs director Shawn Turner said U.S. intelligence concluded "in the immediate aftermath" of the assault that it had begun "spontaneously" in the wake of violent protests in Egypt.
"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," Turner said. "As we learned more ... we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."
The statement could take some of the heat off the White House over some of its early explanations for what happened in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of American Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three colleagues. White House press secretary Jay Carney, noting that an FBI investigation was ongoing, repeatedly tied the attack to public anger at an Internet video that insults Islam.
The White House drew fire from Republicans who rejected that early explanation and said the attack was clearly terrorism. Carney accused the president's political foes of trying to score partisan points with the attack. But by late last week, Carney was saying it was "self-evident" that it was a terrorist attack. White House officials say his explanation changed as new evidence came to light.
Still, a knowledgeable source told Yahoo News last week that the U.S. intelligence community had reached the conclusion that the attack was the work of terrorists on "Day One." The source repeated that assessment on Thursday. Top Libyan officials came out shortly after the assault to describe it as a terrorist attack. President Barack Obama, in September 12 remarks about the tragedy, vowed that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."
Turner also said in his statement that "it remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
"We continue to make progress, but there remain many unanswered questions," he said. "As more information becomes available our analysis will continue to evolve and we will obtain a more complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attack."
It was unclear how long the "immediate aftermath" scenario remained in force, and when the intelligence community revised its assessment. An email to Clapper's press office seeking more details on that front went unanswered.