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Obama aides internally disputed terrorism finding for several days, sources say

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Sept. 12, 2012: This file photo shows a man walking through a room in the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.AP

The day after U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told five Sunday shows that the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous mob actions and not premeditated, Fox News has learned, U.S. intelligence officials contacted independent security contractors to review critical evidence in the case.  

Their purpose was to help these officials rebut Ambassador Rice’s claim in a high-stakes internal dispute that was still taking place at the highest levels of the intelligence community and the Obama administration, sources close to the process tell Fox News. 

The disclosure shows that U.S. policymakers and intelligence chieftains were debating how to characterize the Benghazi attacks fully five days after the Obama administration had made a secret finding that the attacks were indeed an act of terrorism.  

That determination, or finding – arrived at within twenty-four hours of the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans – helped the administration move money, men, and material under a post-September 11, 2001 statute, as Fox News and other news organizations have previously reported.

And yet the debate went on – a fact that has not been previously disclosed.  The internal dispute ended for good when Matthew G. Olsen, chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified publicly before the Senate on Wednesday, September 19 that he considered the Benghazi murders acts of terrorism.  

The move by high-level intelligence officials to secure assessments from independent security contractors in the Benghazi case helped tip the scales internally, in the forty-eight hours leading up to Olsen’s appearance before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, sources tell Fox News. 

Specifically, the outside contractors were asked to review CBS News video footage taken shortly after the attacks of the annex that is located a half-mile away from the Benghazi consulate compound, and which was the site where two ex-Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed.

The contractors zeroed in on the mortar rounds fired at the annex, examining the impact angles and fragmentation patterns, to determine – easily and without any internal dispute – that there had been at least two mortar teams present.

The teams were evidently skilled in their use of mortar arms, because their shots were direct hits and there was no evidence of “bracketing fire.” This is a trial-and-error approach whereby the shooter, not having precise targeting data, will deliberately aim seventy-five or a hundred yards left or right of where he thinks the target is, and squeeze off three to four rounds before fixing the exact target. This in turn indicates that the teams used GPS devices and “dialed in” the targets: all evidence of a premeditated attack.

This determination by the outside contractors validated the existing view of the high-level intelligence officials who had contacted them, and served as ammunition in the officials’ own internal battle to rebut the claims that Rice had perpetuated on the Sunday shows the day before.  Olsen would testify the day after the contractors rendered their assessments.

The only glimpse the administration has yet offered into the possibility that the intelligence community has been racked by internal disputes has been a statement released this past Friday by a spokesman for James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence.

Initially, the statement said, “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo.” Intelligence briefers conveyed that assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, the statement said, “who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”

“As we learned more about the attack,” the statement added, “we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

“The business of intelligence has become politicized,” said one of the contractors who performed the evidence review.  “That’s just a sad fact, regardless of which party is in charge.”

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the National Security Council told Fox News that Ambassador Rice’s language during her Sunday show appearances had been “based on and cleared by the intelligence community.” The spokesman did not address Fox News’ disclosures about the use of independent security contractors to review post-attack footage, or the role those assessments played in the period leading up to Director Olsen’s testimony.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."