Published October 24, 2012
Congressional sources tell Fox News that a top administration counterterrorism official was reprimanded by the White House last month after he testified that the Sept. 11 attack in Libya was terrorism.
The White House and the official are pushing back on the claim. But the allegation would appear to raise questions about recent administration statements that they were labeling the attack terrorism from the start.
Sources told Fox News that, in fact, the White House was unhappy with Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, after his Sept. 19 comments, and told him to tone it down afterward.
Olsen had told a Senate committee, in reference to the four Americans killed in the attack: "They were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy."
It was the first time any administration official had publicly and directly labeled the attack terrorism.
Fox News was told Olsen's position was that he was laying out the intelligence as it was currently understood.
The White House, though, denied Olsen was reprimanded.
"This is completely false. The attack in Benghazi was clearly an act of terror, which is why the president referred to it as such three times before this testimony," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Fox News. He was referring to Obama's statement on Sept. 12, and subsequently, in which he referred to "acts of terror."
A national counterterrorism official told Fox News that Olsen also denied he was reprimanded for his statements.
The claim further complicates the narrative about when the administration came to the conclusion that the attack was terrorism - let alone whether the attack was pre-planned, a matter that is still in dispute.
Before Olsen's Sept. 19 testimony, administration officials had avoided explicitly calling the attack terrorism. Asked about that label just two days earlier, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "I don't think we know enough. 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 on Sept. 20 used the term -- but then Obama, despite having referred to "acts of terror" earlier, declined to use any labels during an interview that same day on Univision.
Nevertheless, administration officials have since claimed Obama was calling the attack terrorism from the start. It was a point of contention during the second presidential debate, when Romney appeared taken aback as the president said: "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror."
Moderator Candy Crowley backed up the president, though later acknowledging that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice would later claim the act was a "spontaneous" reaction to a protest over an anti-Islam film.
The dueling public comments in the first two weeks after the attack continue to stir vociferous controversy on Capitol Hill. The latest development is the release of State Department emails that show top administration officials were alerted that a local militant group in Benghazi called Ansar al-Sharia had taken responsibility on Facebook and Twitter for the attack, hours after it happened. The same group later denied responsibility.