Published September 21, 2012
After the White House for the first time Thursday explicitly called the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya an act of terror, President Obama ducked an opportunity to clear up the confusion about the ever-changing narrative -- appearing to hold firm to the story that an anti-Islam film was to blame.
The president spoke Thursday at a town hall hosted by the Spanish-language Univision. He declined to get into specifics, even as lawmakers said after an intelligence briefing that there clearly was "some pre-planning" in last week's deadly attack.
Instead, Obama launched into an explanation about how the U.S. saw something it's seen before, where "there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the Prophet Muhammad" and that is used "as an excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts" against the U.S.
Obama stressed that we're "still doing an investigation" and said he didn't know whether Al Qaeda was involved.
"There are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don't want to speak to something until we have all the information. What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests," he said. Obama did not answer the original question posed at the forum about why security wasn't tighter at diplomatic posts.
Despite the president's reluctance to clarify what has been a wave of evolving statements from administration officials and lawmakers alike, back in Washington the narrative was starting to crystallize.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, for the first time, called the attack terrorism.
"It is, I think, self evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," Carney said. "Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials. That is self evident."
Obama, in his public statement last Wednesday on the attack, referred to "acts of terror."
But no official had explicitly labeled the strike as such until National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen did on Wednesday during a Senate hearing.
This past Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to label the strike.
"I don't think we know enough," she said. "And we're going to continue to assess ... and then we'll be in a better position to put labels on things, OK?"
The White House still has not definitively backed off its claim that there's no evidence of a pre-planned strike. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Thursday seemed to be rejecting that argument in the face of new evidence and following briefings with administration officials on Capitol Hill.
"The notion this video is involved in the Benghazi attack is inaccurate," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "It's increasingly being debunked."
Rubio called it a coordinated terror attack.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, also said that from what he has learned there was "some pre-planning" involved. Further, he said that Sufyan Ben Qumu - an Al Qaeda-tied former Guantanamo inmate whom Fox News was first to report as a possible suspect -- did come up in the briefing as a "person of interest."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and other top officials were involved in the extensive briefings on Capitol Hill late Thursday. It's unclear how much of the lawmakers' claims afterward were based on information learned in the briefing.
Several, though, were adamant that the administration's story was falling apart.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said he believes it's now clear the story has changed and that the administration is "walking away" from their first version of events claiming the attack was spontaneous.