By Elise Labott
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.
The former head of U.S. forces in Africa said the September 11, 2012, attack on the American mission in Benghazi quickly appeared to be a terrorist attack and not a spontaneous protest.
It was clear "pretty quickly that this was not a demonstration. This was a violent attack," former Gen. Carter Ham told the Aspen Security Forum on Friday. Ham is the former chief of U.S. Africa Command, commonly known as AFRICOM.
Five days after the attack, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on the Sunday news shows to say it was the result of a spontaneous demonstration, not a terrorist strike.
While the State Department has maintained that Rice's erroneous talking points were the result of getting and reacting to information in real time, critics accuse the Obama administration of orchestrating a politically motivated cover-up over a botched response, and continue to press for answers as to when the administration knew they were dealing with a terrorist attack.
When asked whether he specifically thought it was a terrorist attack, Ham said, "I don't know that that was my first reaction. But pretty quickly as we started to gain understanding within the hours after the initiation of the attack, yes. And at the command I don't think anyone thought differently."
Ham was in Washington for a meeting of all combat commanders when the attack was under way. Although a decision was made to send a drone from eastern Libya toward Benghazi, by the time it arrived above the facility, the attack on the mission was winding down.
Ham knew Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing and believed he could have possibly been kidnapped. Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack.
"In my mind, at that point we were no longer in a response to an attack. We were in a recovery and frankly, I thought, we were in a potential a hostage rescue situation," Ham said.
Ham said although he had authority to scramble a jet to the scene, he decided there was "not necessity and there was not a clear purpose in doing so."
"To do what?" he asked. "It was a very, very uncertain situation."
Ham said although U.S. officials were looking for indicators about a possible attack on US interests during the 9/11 anniversary, there was no information that an attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi was imminent.
"It was on it everyone's mind....we really were looking very hard," he said. "Did we miss something? Was there something in the intelligence that indicated that an attack on the U.S. special mission facility in Benghazi was being planned or was likely? If that intelligence exists, I don't know."
Ham said that he didn't think Stevens, who lived in Libya, would have traveled to Benghazi if he had information about a possible attack.
"If he felt there was a risk in Benghazi, I don't think only for himself, but he would not have put others at risk by going to Benghazi he felt was an increased likelihood of violence occurring in that place," Ham said. "I'm convinced that he didn't have any indications."
Ham said the fact there is not a stable government in Libya makes the country "a very significant threat," noting that al Qaeda has established itself in eastern and southwestern Libya. The United States, he said, is trying to strengthen the capacity of the Libyan authorities to deal with the threat.