September 20th, 2012
07:22 PM ET

U.S. officials appear less certain of events ahead of Libya attack

By Suzanne Kelly and Pam Benson

U.S. officials appear less certain about what happened in Benghazi, Libya, just before the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last week.

"We certainly acknowledge contradictory information about whether there was a protest prior to the attack," a U.S. official told CNN on Thursday. "We're continuing to collect information and evaluate exactly what the circumstances were prior to the attack."

U.S. officials have been saying they believe, based on the intelligence, that the attack grew out of a spontaneous protest over a trailer for an anti-Muslim film that was circulating on the Internet, and there is no indication it was a planned attack. It is a contention that critics like Republican Sen. John McCain have said is hard to believe true given the extensive attack and the amount of weaponry involved.

Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered the administration's assessment on a number of Sunday talk shows.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Rice said, "Soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post- revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent."

But conflicting information about whether there really was a protest ahead of the attack calls into question whether the attack was planned.

National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told a Senate committee on Wednesday that he believed the attack fit the definition of a terrorist attack. Although he maintained the evidence so far indicated the attack was not planned, he was careful in describing just what officials knew about how it transpired and who was involved.

"The best information we have now, the facts we have now indicate this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy. The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours," said Olsen. "It appears that individuals who were certainly well armed, seized on the opportunity that was presented as the events unfolded that evening into the morning hours of September 12th."

But both Olsen and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added a new characterization to their account. Olsen said there was nothing specific indicating "significant advanced planning" and Carney on Thursday said there was no information to suggest "a significantly preplanned attack."

"It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," Carney added.

A U.S. intelligence official on Thursday also seemed more cautious.

"Simply put, while everything is still under investigation, the available information suggests the protests in Cairo inspired what the attackers decided to do later that night in Benghazi," the official said. "Right now, this points to a plan that was hatched opportunistically that day. Of course, if credible new information suggests otherwise, the investigation will pursue those leads."

The source also told CNN that "the available information suggests a group of people gathered sometime before ten o'clock that night outside of the consulate. The mixture of the people involved, and who took part in the attack, is certainly going to be part of the investigation."

CNN's Arwa Damon, who has been in Benghazi this week, reports that on the night of September 11, a group of armed individuals showed up outside the consulate around 9:30 and a firefight had broken out within 30 minutes.

On Thursday, Libya's Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur told Damon that eight people who are believed to be involved in carrying out the attack are now detained in Libya.

But he also said the evidence so far shows the attack was planned. Approximately 30 to 50 people took part and it was clearly organized, said the prime minister, but he added there was no one specific group behind the attack.

soundoff (712 Responses)
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  3. Mui

    it better. Thank you for your eluqoent and accurate commentary.I agree: Obama is a moderate Republican; he is not a Progressive Democrat. So it's time to vote him out of office, even voting for a Republican since the difference between Obama and Romney would not be great: both had the same health care plan, which sucks; both will implement tax breaks for the super rich and corporations; and both will not create any jobs.In fact, Romney may not be as much of a hawk as Obama: Obama has increased our military presence abroad.It's time for all Progressives to send a protest vote to the DNC. If it gives us Republican look-alike candidates, we will vote Republican. We do not need two Republican parties in this country, the only difference being that the Democratic version is just a tad more liberal on its social issues, but still represents Wall Street, the super rich, and the multinational corporations.

    October 10, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  4. Pnm9pnm

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    September 23, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  5. krm1007 ©™

    Few days back, there was an interesting article on Pakistan "The bubble of Islamic Republic of Pakistan has burst in our faces". It made me to do more research on the subject and on grave political conditions in Pakistan, and possibility of another military coup. We here in the United States, continue to monitor the political and cultural turmoil in Pakistan and are very concerned with the continued state of deterioration, and it's nuclear stockpile. At this point, we restate our view that Islamic Republic of Pakistan is in a precarious situation and that a geo-political implosion is imminent (if not already in process) and the need of the hour. As you will recall, along the Afghan/Pak borders, Pakistan has an unmanageable large fundamentalist Taliban population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to prop it up. Additionally, it is also too big of a geographical units of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for Pakistani weak government to govern. In 2001 the Pakistani military entered the FATA for the first time in history, and returned home with heavy casualties. We Americans now need to focus on our own people and cannot afford to handout more financial and technological aid to Pakistan. We believe that this de-fragmentation of Pakistan along 13 FATA agencies (see the list below) will unleash boundless opportunities and uber economic demand that will be beneficial to US and our allies in extracting rare earth minerals along Afghan/Pak borders, and help pull ourselves out of current recessionary trends. Knowing presence of hard core islamic fundamentalists, war lords, drug cartels, and Russians and Chinese involvement, in the region, We pray for the events to unfold peacefully and in a harmonious manner for the poverty stricken people of Pakistan and its global future economic super power neighbors China and India. For the sake of long lasting peace and to break the cycle of violence in Pakistan, a potential solution for out of control militancy in Pakistan is to break down the Pakistan along the FATA agencies, like creation of Bangladesh in 1972:

    Bajaur Agency
    Mohmand Agency
    Khyber Agency
    Frontier Region Peshawar
    Frontier Region Kohat
    Orakzai Agency
    Kurram Agency
    Frontier Region Bannu
    North Waziristan Agency
    Frontier Region Lakki Marwat
    Frontier Region Tank
    South Waziristan Agency
    Frontier Region Dera Ismail Khan

    My prayer and good wishes are with militancy infested Islamic Republic of Pakistan!!!

    September 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  6. J. James Mcgregor

    Tragically, in India people are dying of hunger. Why are low caste poor Hindus prohibited from eating beef? People stop their cars, and sit for hours waiting for a cow to clear the roadway, thinking it to be sacred. In India cow meat is cheaper than other available meats. Instead of these Brahmins taking care of the low caste peoples of India, they are doing their best to save their "holy" cows instead. This is evil. According to Valmith's Ramayana, God Rama "ATE" meat. So then "why" have these Brahmins given up beef-eating? It's hypocrisy within their own religion.

    September 23, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  7. RRK

    I support CNN in releasing Ambassador Stevens Journal. What really bothers me is that Hillary and the Obama administration want to limit free speech. Throughout the Libyan crisis the administration has blamed the anti Muslim movie and ignored other credible reports.
    What is amazing is that by having Stevens personal journal the administration is still trying to blame the movie. At this point it is not what they are hiding because the truth is out, yet they are still in denial. This situation erodes our trust in our current government. Hillary is mad because she got caught and yet our Teflon president moves on.

    September 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  8. Evac Marine

    Just after 9:35pm local time, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was overcome by smoke and died, trapped alone inside the burning villa after all the other Americans withdrew. Another diplomat, Sean Smith, and two U.S. security men were also killed that night.

    At the time this incident occurred was very late at night. Far past business hours, when the Consulate should have been closed and not occupied, especially if it was a non-fortified facility.

    * The biggest problem was they were living at the Consulate, which is a solid violation of USG security standards.

    USG employees can not work and live in the same location, unless it is new construction, that meets new fortification construction standards like the Embassy's in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. That construction must also be completed and managed by a vetted American Construction Company.

    It's a simple rule which obviously wasn't being followed. One can not receive a waiver for this requirement either.

    It's in stone, no living and working in the same location, unless it is a fortified facility, which this location obviously was not.

    Sad this could have been avoided, if people were following the rules.

    What should have happened; the victims would have been living at a separate location, in a hotel or in houses away from the Consulate and this building would have burned to the ground and no one would have been injured or died.

    September 23, 2012 at 4:12 am | Reply
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