The intelligence community on Friday once again modified its assessment of what caused the deadly terror attack last month on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya – returning in part to claims that the violence was in reaction to a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over an anti-Islam film.
At the same time, the latest assessment acknowledged there was no actual protest in Benghazi at the time of the attack and that “extremist” elements were likely involved.
The information, provided to Fox News by a U.S. intelligence official, is subject to change but could end up providing fodder to both sides in what has become a politically charged fight in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail. Lawmakers have slammed the administration for pointing almost exclusively to the film as the reason for the Sept. 11 strike in the days afterward.
The latest assessment appears to fall somewhere between the flawed account U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice gave on Sept. 16 claiming the attack was “spontaneous” and a subsequent revision on Sept. 28 by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claiming it was a coordinated terror attack.
Virtually everyone in the administration now describes the attack as terrorism.
But the U.S. intelligence official said there does not appear to be a whole lot of planning involved, despite the fact the attack occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
"No one is ruling out the idea that some of the attackers may have aspired to attack the U.S. in Benghazi. However, right now, there isn’t any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance,” the official said. “The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Of course, other factors may also have motivated participation in the attack."
Despite the re-emerging claim that the attack occurred with little planning, militants made several attacks on U.S. and Western targets -- including the consulate itself -- in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 strike. Sources also previously told Fox News that last month's strike may have been part of a deliberate effort to drive the U.S. out of eastern Libya.
Some lawmakers have described as ludicrous the idea that the anti-Islam film prompted a sustained overnight assault that involved mortars and rocket fire.
Clapper’s office appeared to knock down the video theory in its Sept. 28 statement, which said: "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.”
His office said it’s unclear whether any “group or person” commanded the attack but that some of the attackers are linked to groups tied to Al Qaeda.
The intelligence official who spoke to Fox News on condition of anonymity walked a fine line in trying to give an updated picture of what happened. The official acknowledged that, despite initial comments, “there probably wasn’t a protest around the time of the attack.”
The official said: “It was clear from the outset that a group of people gathered that evening. A key question early on was whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants. It took time—until that next week—to sort through varied and sometimes conflicting accounts to understand the group’s overall composition.”
Rice, to the contrary, seemed to indicate the attack was an outgrowth of a sudden protest when she appeared on “Fox News Sunday” on Sept. 16. She called it “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," she said.
Rice and other officials have since blamed the intelligence they had at the time for the faulty assessment.
The intelligence official said the initial briefing to Congress included guidance that “extremists were involved in attacks that appeared spontaneous.”
The official added: “The talking points were written so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary about the attacks. Naturally, public statements about classified working assessments are going to be cautious and caveated.”
The official added that everything is subject to change.
“As new reporting comes in, we review, reassess, and revise as appropriate,” the official said.