The Obama administration is walking a tightrope on its explanation over what led to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya -- sticking to its claim that the attack was "spontaneous" while allowing that the situation may have been exploited by militants.
The latest clarification from the administration came in response to an intelligence source on the ground in Libya telling Fox News there was no significant or sizeable demonstration when the attacks unfolded sometime after 9:30 p.m. in Benghazi last Tuesday. That appeared to challenge the view, espoused by the Obama administration, that ongoing demonstrations over an anti-Islam film had simply spun out of control.
"There was no protest, and the attacks were not spontaneous," the intelligence source said. "The Libyan attack was planned and had nothing to do with the movie."
Responding to the account, a U.S. official did not dispute that no major protest was taking place right before the strike. The U.S. official said a small group had gathered outside the consulate between 9 and 10 p.m. local time, but the investigation has yet to determine whether they were demonstrators or armed militants.
However, the official emphasized there had been a small demonstration, of about two dozen people, at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi earlier in the day. Asked how many hours separated the small demonstration from the attack later in the evening, the U.S. official could not say but added it was also under investigation.
"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 official said.
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The working theory based on conversations known to the intelligence community, according to the same U.S. official, is that attackers in Benghazi took their "inspiration" from the demonstrations in Cairo.
"Spontaneous does not mean a 'bang, bang' connection," the U.S. official said emphasizing that a Cairo connection could not be discounted at this early stage of the investigation.
At first blush, it appears Libyan and Obama administration officials are offering two completely different accounts. The Libyans, including the Libyan president, say the attack was pre-planned. The Obama administration says it was spontaneous. Both sides are sticking to their version of events.
But Obama administration officials may be easing off just a little, in acknowledging that the protest in Libya before the attack was a relatively tiny one and that perhaps agenda-driven extremists took their cue from protests in Cairo and seized the opportunity to strike.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said as much when she told ABC News' "This Week" that "as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."
This, by itself, is not so far off from what the Libyans are saying. The administration just won't go so far as to call this a coordinated terrorist attack. To the contrary, they still describe the whole situation as spontaneous.
To that, the Libyans say "preposterous."
Fox News was told that the assault on the consulate came without warning, and, to strengthen the view that it was pre-meditated, the assault included RPGs and mortars -- including at least one round that hit the consulate roof.
There were two waves to the assault, Fox News was told. According to the intelligence source, in the first wave, the attackers were heard to say "we got him" -- a reference to Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack. Word spread, the attackers regrouped and the second wave went after the motorcade and support personnel.
The account relayed by the intelligence source on the ground in Libya is consistent with statements by the Libyan president that the attack was pre-mediated and the work of foreign fighters, which is code for Islamist extremists, including the Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa. It is also consistent with an interview by McClatchy Newspapers with a purported Libyan security guard who was injured in the assault. The guard said the consulate area was quiet and "there wasn't a single ant outside" until dozens of armed men descended on the compound.
These accounts stand in contrast to some statements made by Ambassador Rice on the Sunday talk shows. In several separate appearances, Rice said the assault on the U.S. Consulate began as an ongoing demonstration that spiraled out of control.
On "Fox News Sunday," she said: "The best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack, that what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control. But we don't see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack."
Even before Ambassador Stevens' murder, U.S. officials say the CIA determined the security situation in eastern Libya was deteriorating based on four attacks, beginning in June, on diplomatic and Western targets in Benghazi, including the U.S. consulate. That said, U.S. officials insist there was no specific warning of an armed assault, like the one that killed the four Americans.
While the Obama administration maintains there was no "actionable intelligence" or specific warning about time, place or method of attack before the armed assault, Fox News asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a spokesman for the National Security Council if the four attacks were briefed to the president as part of the highly classified daily briefing. There was no immediate response from either office.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.