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U.S. Intelligence Finds Organized Terrorist Attack in Libya

Some of the people who carried out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, “were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, al-Qaeda,” according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The intelligence community has shifted from its initial judgment that the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans began as a spontaneous reaction during protests against an anti-Islam film made in the U.S., according to a statement issued yesterday. Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for providing that assessment in the days after the Sept. 11 attack.

“As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists,” Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence, said in an e-mailed statement.

“It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate,” he said.

The Benghazi attack has become a U.S. political issue.

Republicans in Congress have complained about a lack of information from the administration, suggesting officials were reluctant to acknowledge the event as a terrorist attack with potential links to al-Qaeda.

Republican Criticism

A group of House Republicans, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon of California, sent a letter to Obama on Sept. 26 seeking a briefing on U.S. intelligence leading up to the attack and on security at the consulate. The lawmakers said the attacks were probably orchestrated by al-Qaeda, and said the influence of that organization and affiliated groups has “metastasized” in North Africa without clearer acknowledgment of the threat from top U.S. officials.

The same day, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire wrote to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asking for clarification of her statements that the attack in Libya was the result of “spontaneous reaction.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has cited the consulate attack in accusing Obama of minimizing the killing of the U.S. ambassador and other turmoil in the region.

Romney said again yesterday that Obama had referred in a television interview to anti-American protests, attacks in Muslim countries and the upheaval in Syria as “bumps in the road” to democratizing the region.

‘Bump in the Road’

“I don’t consider the killing of our diplomats in Libya as a bump in the road, and I sure as heck don’t consider Iran becoming nuclear a bump in the road,” Romney said at the Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

The context of Obama’s remarks on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program Sept. 23 was the setbacks in the process of democratization in the Mideast.

“It was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance,” Obama said. “But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam. The one part of society that hasn’t been controlled completely by the government. There are strains of extremism, and anti-Americanism, and anti-Western sentiment.”

Initial Assessment

Administration officials initially said the Benghazi attack was an outgrowth of protests against the anti-Islam film, a position that Turner said was consistent with the intelligence community’s first assessment.

“In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” Turner said in yesterday’s statement. “We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”

“Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving,” he said.

At the White House Sept. 26, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s position was that the attack was carried out by terrorists. U.S. officials have consistently said it is unclear exactly who was behind the attack, dispatching an FBI team to Libya to work with officials there on an investigation.

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