(WASHINGTON) — Obama administration officials told ABC News they had early concerns the attack in Benghazi, Libya was the work of terrorists. Events were too uncertain, and suspicions had been aroused, officials said.
Panetta Thursday said that the attack that killed four Americans on the anniversary of 9/11 was not only carried out by terrorists — it was pre-meditated.
“As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place,” Panetta told reporters, “it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack.”
The White House first suggested the attack was spontaneous — the result of an anti-Muslim video that incited mobs throughout the region.
“Let’s be clear, these protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Sept. 14.
When ABC News pressed Carney on whether that included the Benghazi attack, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American men were killed, Carney said, “we certainly don’t know. We don’t know otherwise. We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.”
On ABC’s This Week on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said, “our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated. We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons … And it then evolved from there.”
White House officials acknowledge that assessments have changed over time as intelligence has been confirmed, but they insist that no information was given in bad faith and there was no attempt to downplay the attack.
But sources told ABC News that intelligence officials on the ground immediately suspected the attack was not tied to the movie at all. The attackers knew where to get Ambassador Stevens after he’d fled to a so-called safe house half a mile away. That building was hit with insurgent mortars — suggesting the terrorists knew what they were doing.
As of Thursday afternoon, officials from the Obama administration were not even 100 percent certain that the protest of the anti-Muslim film in Benghazi occurred outside the U.S. diplomatic post.
In a closed-door briefing with top officials, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the mortar attack on the safe house as suggesting that the terrorist attack was one of opportunity, not pre-meditation, since the mortars were not used to attack the consulate earlier in the day.
President Obama has repeatedly said the investigation is on to find the killers and bring them to justice. But as first reported by CNN, ABC news has learned that the FBI — which has been dispatched to Libya to take the lead in the investigation — has not even reached Benghazi yet.
This is largely due to safety concerns. Indeed, as of Thursday, senior State Department officials said that the diplomatic presence in Libya — which was already down to emergency-level staffing — would be further reduced.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Lisa Respers France, CNN
Carina Storrs, Special to CNN