September 14th, 2012
07:43 PM ET

In attack aftermath, disagreement over how it began

By Adam Levine

As the investigation into the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, continues, there is disagreement about whether the violence was a result of a mob gone awry, a planned terror attack or a combination of the two.

The White House said Friday there was no indication before the attack in Libya this week that something was in the works beforehand.

"We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent," presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.

The comment came as a top Libyan official and some within Congress and other aspects of the U.S. government said there are signs now that the attack on the consulate that killed the ambassador and three other Americans was not a spontaneous outgrowth of a mob angered by an anti-Muslim film.

A U.S. official told CNN's Suzanne Kelly that American intelligence was sufficiently concerned about the attention the movie was receiving online to warn the embassy in Egypt in a bulletin a few days before protesters stormed that compound in Cairo on Tuesday, the same day the consulate in Libya was attacked by armed militants.

The warning did not specify a threat and the source did not say if that intelligence bulletin was sent to American diplomats in Libya.

Several American officials have told CNN this week there was no intelligence in advance that there was a plot in the making. Some officials have said it does not appear it was a fully planned ahead of time.

But a senior U.S. official told CNN's Barbara Starr on Friday that while the United States is not ready to draw a conclusion about whether the attack was spontaneous or planned, there is some evidence pointing to the notion there was a level of organization and planning behind it, given the extensive nature of the attack.

Moreover, a congressional source told CNN's Suzanne Kelly on Friday that there is disagreement within the intelligence community over whether this was planned. When pressed individually, some analysts have hedged, according to the source.

The Libyan government believes the Benghazi attack was planned and intended to inflict maximum damage, a top Libyan official told CNN's Arwa Damon.

Mohammed al-Megaryef, the president of Libya's ruling General National Congress, said the attacks were carried out by extremists with the intent of driving apart Libyans and Americans and sabotaging the relationship.

The information points more to the attack having started as a spontaneous protest that lasted for hours before metastasizing into a more organized attack, according to Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland.

Ruppersberger and other members of the House Intelligence Committee were briefed Friday by Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus.

"In the beginning, we feel that it was spontaneous – the protest – because it went on for two or three hours, which very [is] relevant because if it was something that was planned then they could have come and attacked right away," Ruppersberger said.

Ruppersberger spoke to reporters after the briefing and said he believes the attack was by an al-Qaeda related extremist group.

Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, told reporters that in his opinion the incident was a terrorist attack, in part because of the use of rocket propelled grenades.

McCain, who had just left a briefing by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, observed the weaponry is not what a normal protester would bring to demonstrate, according to CNN's Kate Bolduan and Ted Barrett.

"It's hard to know exactly what took place and how long it was planned. I don't have that information," McCain said. "The reporting is that 15 people, with beards, with weapons, such as RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] - people don't go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons. I mean, the facts on its face indicate this was not a mob action by a group of protesters."

"It was a terrorist attack, organized and carried out by terrorists," McCain said.

Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said there are indications the attack was planned in advance.

"I think there's evidence of that. There's been evidence of that," Levin, D-Michigan, said after the Panetta briefing. "I don't think we know whether they were connecting it to the protests but the attack looked like it was planned and premeditated, sure. But I don't think there was evidence that it was a coming."

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee agreed that while it does look like this was an organized attack, there was no indication the attack was coming.

"This was not just a mob that got out of hand. Mobs don't come in and attack, guns blazing," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, in an interview with CNN." I think that there is a growing consensus it was preplanned, but please understand that is entirely different thing from saying we had intelligence about it. The people who did it, and it is looking increasingly like it was preplanned, we didn't have intelligence of their planning operation."

State Department Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy has said that the attack appeared to be planned because it was so extensive and because of the "proliferation" of small and medium weapons at the scene, a congressional source said earlier. He was briefing congressional staffers earlier this week when he offered that theory.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said earlier this week that it was a targeted attack.

"It is - it was clearly a coordinated attack, a well-coordinated attack, I might add, that was specifically planned to do and accomplish what you saw unfortunately unfold in Benghazi," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, in an interview on CNN's Situation Room.

But on Friday, Rogers' spokeswoman said that the congressman was making his own conclusion from what he had been told in briefings.

"The evidence that Congressman Rogers has seen does not definitively say one way or another whether the attack was planned or not," said Susan Phalen, the communications director for the intelligence panel. "But as a former FBI agent, this seems to make the most sense to him."

Given what officials know about al Qaeda in Libya, intelligence officials believe it is very unlikely that core al Qaeda was behind the attack, a U.S. intelligence official told CNN on condition of anonymity. But the official said the intelligence does not rule out that the attack was perpetrated by al Qaeda sympathizers, though officials are not ready to identify a specific group.

"In Libya there are many elements, including al-Qaeda. I think it's pretty clear that they would have had some involvement but again whether it was after the fact, whether there was a spontaneous demonstration that they tried to take advantage of, again all this is still very fluid," said the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-New York.

There is a continuing question as to whether a message from al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was influential in spurning the attack.

His specific call in a 9/11-anniversary video for Libyan Jihadists to attack Americans to avenge death of Abu Yahya al Libi was circulating at least 18 hours before the attack on the compound, according to terror analyst Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, leaving open the possibility that it played a role.

But Venzke told CNN terror analyst Paul Cruickshank that given the timing, it is hard to believe the message from Zawahiri instigated the attack in Libya.

"Based on more than a decade of threat analysis we have carried out, it would be unusual to have such a rapid correlation between a threat statement and an attack, but it is not outside the realm of possibility," Venzke said.

He said any statement of the kind made by Zawahiri would be taken seriously. However he said those providing threat assessments would not normally expect anything to happen within 24 hours.

He stressed Zawahiri's threat was only three lines in a forty something minute video tape. Given the language in the tape, analysts would tend not to have concluded an immediate attack was likely.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Congress • Libya • White House
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