The former head of U.S. forces in Africa, General Carter Ham, told the Aspen Security Forum that it quickly became clear the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi last year was a terrorist attack and not a spontaneous demonstration.
"It became apparent to all of us quickly that this was not a demonstration, this was a violent attack," Ham said. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially had portrayed the embassy attack as a response to an inflammatory internet video.
Ham said he was in Washington D.C. for a routine meeting on September 11, 2012 with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, when an alert came in from commanders in Stuttgart, Germany that a violent assault was underway on the consulate in Benghazi and Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing.
Asked if it was a terrorist attack, Ham said the intelligence left no doubt that it was.
“I don't know if that was my first reaction, but pretty quickly as we started to gain understanding within the hours after the initiation of the attack, yes."
While Ham did not address reports he was pushed into retirement after Benghazi, he said a quick response to the attack was not possible -- and he defended the decision not to scramble fighter jets.
"It was perfectly understandable to me why people would say you should have done that (but) in my military judgment, there was not a necessity and there was not a clear purpose in doing so."
Ham's public assessment, believed to be his first since the attack that left four Americans dead, including Stevens, bears special weight since he was the regional commander for Africa.His comments last weekend are in line with those of his former boss, Panetta, who testified before the Senate Armed Services committee in February.
"When I later found out that you had RPGs and mortars and there was an attack on that second facility, there was no question in my mind it was a terrorist attack,"then Defense Secretary Panetta said.
Asked why Clinton initially blamed an internet video for the attack -- calling it a "response to inflammatory material posted on the internet" -- when senior military officials knew the day of the attack it was terrorism, the State Department Monday tried to portray the disconnect as old news.
"I'm not going to litigate what's already been evaluated,"said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
"This Administration has always been clear that violent extremists were involved in this attack," Psaki said. "The question was who exactly they were and whether there was also a demonstration at the same time. It now appears that there wasn’t, despite the intelligence assessment at the time.
In a letter to Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, is pressing the administration to explain why it has not used the military to detain five Benghazi suspects.
Ham told the Aspen conference he believed the fragile government in Libya was to blame for the investigation's lack of progress.