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US denied access to suspect held in Libya strike, as debate builds over nature of attack

 

American authorities have been denied access to a Tunisian national being held in connection with the consulate attack in Libya that killed an ambassador and three other Americans, a top Republican lawmaker told Fox News.

Ali ani al-Harzi, suspected of ties to extremist groups including Al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate, was arrested in Turkey and has since been transferred to Tunisian authorities, but the U.S. has not been allowed to question him, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said Tuesday.

The latest developments come as some question recent efforts by administration sources to downplay the possibility that the attack was pre-planned. 

Al-Harzi is one of about two-dozen individuals on a list of suspects that is being worked through by the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI. That list was compiled from intercepted intelligence, as well as the remaining surveillance camera video from the compound of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which was attacked Sept. 11. 

Al-Harzi is believed to be a participant in the attack but is not characterized as a ringleader. He is part of a North African Islamist network, with family ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremists.

Saxby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Al-Harzi has been confirmed to be a member of Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan group accused of carrying out the consulate attack.

Confirmation of the arrest came shortly after a leading House lawmaker, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., expressed concern about the status of the investigation. 

In an interview with Fox News, Rogers said he was not comfortable with the pursuit of those responsible for the murders, suggesting the administration was too pre-occupied with reconciling the conflicting statements it has put out on the Libya attack. 

"I am not comfortable with where we are today in tracking the folks, identifying, tracking and bringing to justice the people who killed an American ambassador," Rogers said. 

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 strike. 

Rogers also provided new details that further challenge administration claims that the attack did not involve significant pre-planning. 

He said that, less than a day after the strike, the intelligence committee was told it was a "military"-style event. "Within 12 hours of that incident the intelligence committee received a report that said this was a military- or malicious-style event which would contradict all of what they (the administration) were talking about," Rogers explained. 

Military experts also say the use of mortars at the annex -- which sources have said was actually a CIA post -- is totally inconsistent with claims that the strike was "spontaneous" or "opportunistic." 

Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters called that the "smoking gun" that proves the attack was preplanned "well in advance" for the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror strikes.

Peters said a mortar requires mathematical calculations -- factoring in distance and elevation -- to successfully reach a target. Fox News is told that the first two mortars narrowly missed the annex, with the mortar team recalibrating and then launching two successful rounds. Peter said the most likely scenario is that the mortar location was designated in advance, during daylight hours, when visual contact with the target would have been possible. 

"The mortar was probably set up during hours of daylight, so they could make sure they had, again, the compass angle exactly right," Peters explained.  "None of this is easy stuff." 

Retired Army Gen. Bob Scales, also a Fox News military analyst, said there is no question the mortar team relied on a spotter on location, who used a radio or cell phone to help "recalibrate" the mortar for a direct hit. Scales, too, said the most likely scenario is that the mortar location was designated during daylight hours -- more evidence of pre-meditation -- adding that it is "graduate-level work" which some western military forces are not proficient with.

The administration has abandoned claims that the attack was effectively a protest spun out of control. However, after acknowledging the attack was terrorism by militants with extremist ties, intelligence officials have started to return to claims that it was nevertheless inspired by protests in Egypt over an anti-Islam film -- and involved little planning. 

Rogers alleges that selective leaks over the weekend, including a report in the Washington Post, are part of an orchestrated effort by the administration to legitimize early statements by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and others about the genesis of the attack. 

"What is so frustrating to me is ... over the weekend you see these anonymous U.S. sources, intelligence personnel leaking timelines, even leaking certain pieces of information which was requested by the committee, and all of it seems to put the administration in a good light," Rogers explained   

Rogers said there is strong intelligence that undercuts the administration's position.   

Fox News has been told that the assault by roughly 135 militants was well-coordinated, and that the attackers used so-called "blocking teams" to block off any passage between the consulate and the annex about a mile away. Both buildings came under attack that night.   

They also used "kill-or-capture teams" and employed a "quick reaction force" -- a contingent of reserve militants on standby to flood the area if needed. 

"That is a fairly complicated, sophisticated thing to do," Rogers said. "That you just don't grab a few weapons, jump out of the truck and coordinate on the spot." 

While Rogers and others suggest the administration has cherry-picked intelligence for political purposes, Obama advisers accuse Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of politicizing the tragedy. 

"There's only one candidate here who's tried to exploit it from the beginning. Even while the flames were burning in Benghazi, Mitt Romney was sending out political press releases on this and the whole Republican Party has followed," Obama adviser David Axelrod said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

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.

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