Published December 23, 2015
The Obama administration's account of what may have happened in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last week has evolved by the day.
At first, officials were reluctant to say whether the strike that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya was premeditated. Top-ranking officials ranging from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice subsequently gave briefings and went on television to claim they had no evidence the strike was pre-planned. Carney and others then began to open the door to other possibilities, as accounts emerged that there could be an Al Qaeda connection.
After more than a week, Carney said Thursday it was "self evident" the strike was terrorism. He and others continue to stick by claims, though, that there's no evidence the attack was pre-planned.
The following is a look back at administration statements over the course of the past two weeks.
Carney, at White House press briefing, asked whether the attack was premeditated: "It's too early for us to make that judgment. I think -- I know that this is being investigated, and we're working with the Libyan government to investigate the incident. So I would not want to speculate on that at this time."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at briefing: "We are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, whether it was premeditated, whether they had any external contacts, whether there was any link, until we have a chance to investigate along with the Libyans. So I know that's going to be frustrating for you, but we really want to make sure that we do this right and we don't jump to conclusions. That said, obviously, there are plenty of people around the region citing this disgusting video as something that has been motivating. As the Secretary said this morning, while we as Americans, of course, respect free speech, respect free expression, there's never an excuse for it to become violent."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly - and I hope it is obvious - that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.
To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue."
Carney: "We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack. The unrest we've seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims find offensive. And while the violence is reprehensible and unjustified, it is not a reaction to the 9/11 anniversary that we know of, or to U.S. policy. ... The unrest around the region has been in response to this video. We do not, at this moment, have information to suggest or to tell you that would indicate that any of this unrest was preplanned."
President Obama, in weekly radio address: "This tragic attack takes place at a time of turmoil and protest in many different countries. I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of any religion -- including Islam. Yet there is never any justification for violence. There is no religion that condones the targeting of innocent men and women. There is no excuse for attacks on our Embassies and Consulates. And so long as I am Commander-in-Chief, the United States will never tolerate efforts to harm our fellow Americans."
Rice, on "Fox News Sunday": "The best information and the best assessment we have today is that this was not a pre-planned, pre-meditated attack. What happened initially was that it was 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."
Nuland: "Well, let me start by reminding you that Ambassador Rice outranks me, as does my own boss, so she is often at liberty to say more than I am. And I guess that's going to continue to be the case. What I will say, though, is that Ambassador Rice, in her comments on every network over the weekend, was very clear, very precise, about what our initial assessment of what happened is. And this was not just her assessment. It was also an assessment that you've heard in comments coming from the intelligence community, in comments coming from the White House. I don't have anything to give you beyond that. She also made clear, as I had on Friday, that there is an ongoing FBI investigation. So frankly, I'm not sure that it's useful to go beyond that. I'm not capable of going beyond that, and we'll have to just see what the FBI investigation brings us. ... I would simply say that what - the comments that Ambassador Rice made accurately reflect our government's initial assessment."
Nuland, asked whether it was an act of terrorism: "I don't think we know enough. I don't think we know enough. And we're going to continue to assess. She gave our preliminary assessment. We're going to have a full investigation now, and then we'll be in a better position to put labels on things, okay?"
Carney: "Well, what I can tell you is that we have provided information about what we believe was the precipitating cause of the protest and the violence, based on the information that we have had available. There is an ongoing investigation. The FBI is investigating. And that investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead. ... I'm saying that based on information that we -- our initial information, and that includes all information -- we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a preplanned or premeditated attack; that we saw evidence that it was sparked by the reaction to this video. And that is what we know thus far based on the evidence, concrete evidence -- not supposition -- concrete evidence that we have thus far. But there is a lot that is under investigation here, and as more facts come to light, if they change that assessment, we'll make that clear. ... Based on the information that we have now, it was -- there was a reaction to the video -- there was protests in Cairo, then followed by protests elsewhere, including Benghazi, and that that was what led to the original unrest."
Carney: "What I can tell you is that, as I said last week, as our Ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday and as I said the other day, based on what we know now and knew at the time, we have no evidence of a preplanned or premeditated attack. This, however, remains under investigation, and I made that clear last week, and Ambassador Rice made that clear on Sunday. And if more facts come to light that change our assessment of what transpired in Benghazi and why and how, we will welcome those facts and make you aware of them. But again, based on the information that we had at the time and have to this day, we do not have evidence that it was premeditated. It is a simple fact that there are, in post-revolution, post-war Libya, armed groups, there are bad actors hostile to the government, hostile to the West, hostile to the United States."
National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, in testimony on Capitol Hill: "Certainly on that particular question I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy."
Olsen: "What we don't have at this point is specific intelligence that there was significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack. Again, we're still developing facts and still looking for any indications of substantial advanced planning. We just haven't seen that at this point."
Carney: "It is, I think, self evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials. That is self evident. ... Had this happened on any day of the week on any month, this would have been a terrorist attack. This was an assault on our embassy, a violent attack, rather, on our diplomatic facility there that resulted in the death of four Americans."