By Barbara Starr and Adam Levine
The assault on the diplomatic office in Benghazi was clearly a planned assault by terrorists, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Thursday.
"As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place, it became clear that there were terrorists who planned that attack," Panetta said.
Panetta's comments are the most definitive to date by an administration official that the Benghazi assault was planned. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on September 16th that the attack "began spontaneously" as a protest against an anti-Muslim film that "spun" from there. Last week, testifying to Congress, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center said, at that point, there was no indication of "significant" plotting.
"What we don't have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack," Matt Olsen said.
Panetta, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, said that determining what terrorists were involved is still a matter to be determined by the investigation.
"It clearly was a group of terrorists who conducted that attack against that facility," Panetta said. "We are not going to let people who deliberately attack and kill our people get away with it."
Asked how long it took for him to make that determination of it being a terror attack, Panetta said "it took a while" once information from the location came back.
U.S. officials have said there was no "actionable intelligence" ahead of the September 11th attack, but there was a sense by intelligence agencies that groups in eastern Libya were seeking to “coalesce,” said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who spoke at the same press conference.
“There was a thread of intelligence reporting that groups in the environment in eastern Libya were seeking to coalesce but there wasn't anything specific and certainly not a specific threat to the consulate that I am aware of,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey did not elaborate on what the information was but said there was nothing specific in that information about plans to attack the Benghazi diplomatic office.
A source familiar with Dempsey’s thinking on that intelligence thread told CNN the information came to light in the month before the attack and was indicating extremist groups “may be collaborating and are more connected than they are disparate.”
The US had been conducted drone surveillance missions and monitoring cell phone traffic among extremist groups in eastern Libya for some time, US officials have confirmed to CNN.
Dempsey said that information was shared among intelligence agencies and agency “partners,” when asked if State Department was aware of that information.