January 17th, 2013
05:07 PM ET

In wake of Benghazi, U.S. limiting remarks on Algeria attack

By Barbara Starr

The post-Benghazi controversy over who was responsible for that attack in Libya is now reaching into internal Obama administration deliberations over how much to say about the terrorist attack in Algeria.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, were quick to call the kidnapping a terrorist attack, but the administration has resisted discussing details about what elements are directly involved.

A senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence tells CNN that although "intelligence is streaming in" from Algeria, the administration will not come to a firm conclusion what specific elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are responsible until it has a higher level of certainty than currently exists.

Just how gun-shy is the U.S. intelligence community about stating its conclusions on Algeria?

"The intelligence is uncertain until we build a level of confidence that allows us to say all indications are it's a particular group," the official said. "We are pretty certain we know who is responsible, but there are still streams of intelligence that conflict with what we know."

After the attack in Benghazi, the administration was skewered for avoiding blaming terrorists. Part of the hesitation came from the intelligence community, which initially said public discussion of the event should be limited to a belief that the attack came spontaneously after a protest over an anti-Muslim film. Only more than a week later did the intelligence community feel confident in the connections to terrorism.

While several U.S. officials have emphasized how sketchy information has been in the initial hours following the attack on Wednesday, the senior U.S. official said intelligence has continued to be developed and assessed from all sources. The United States is analyzing video claims by militants working closely with the Algerians, monitoring media reports, and assessing imagery and signals such as cell phone calls from satellites and drones flying overhead.

"There is a great effort to collect all we can," the source said. He also noted that some of the intelligence collected early on had resulted in other leads.

The Benghazi controversy also had again raised the question of what intelligence the U.S. might have had in advance about the threat against the BP compound in Algeria.

The official noted that the U.S. government might not be aware of specific threats against a particular commercial facility, but at this time there is not a final answer on that question.

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