Top intelligence official backtracks on Libya story, says initial assessment premature
The office of the United States' top intelligence official appeared to take the blame Friday for the Obama administration's changing narrative on the U.S. Consulate attack in Libya, saying administration officials who initially claimed the attack was spontaneous did so based on intelligence officials' guidance.
The statement by Shawn Turner, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was put out late Friday -- at the close of a tumultuous week for the Obama administration over the Libya attack.
The White House has had to steadily backpedal over initial claims that the attack was inspired by protests in Cairo over an anti-Islam film and was not pre-planned. Top officials started last week calling the attack "terrorism."
Turner's statement marked a complete reversal from the initial claims.
"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," Turner said. "It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with or sympathetic to Al Qaeda."
Turner, though, sought to explain that officials who discussed the attack as spontaneous did so based on intelligence community assessments.
"In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo," he said. "We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving."
However, sources have told Fox News that intelligence officials knew within 24 hours the attack that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead was terrorism, and that they suspected it was tied to Al Qaeda.
It's unclear, then, why the intelligence community told Executive Branch officials it was spontaneous.
In the midst of the changing story, Republicans have complained that they were misled by the administration. They pointed to briefings to lawmakers and comments made by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice on five Sunday shows in which she claimed the attack was spontaneous, not pre-planned, and tied to the anti-Islam film.
Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, told National Review that he thinks Rice should resign over the controversy.
"She is America's foreign policy spokesman to the world," King said. "The fact is she gave out information which was either intentionally or unintentionally misleading and wrong, and there should be consequences for that."
Meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are raising questions about security at the compound in Benghazi. All members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote to the State Department on Thursday asking for additional details about security at U.S. diplomatic posts and for a fuller explanation of the attacks on U.S. compounds in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
An intelligence source on the ground in Libya told Fox News on Friday that no threat assessment was conducted before U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team began "taking up residence" at the Benghazi compound -- describing the security lapses as a "total failure."
The source told Fox News that there was no real security equipment installed in the villas on the compound except for a few video cameras.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, the intelligence source said the security lapses were a 10 -- a "total failure" because Benghazi was known to be a major area for extremist activity.
There had been four attacks or attempted attacks on diplomatic and western targets leading up to the Sept. 11 strike on the U.S. Consulate.
Based on that information, a former regional security officer for diplomatic security told Fox News, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi had to have been classified or assessed by the State Department as a "critical threat terrorism or civil unrest posting."
Fox News was told that State Department standards for diplomatic missions overseas dictate physical security standards for this classification. There are two sets -- classified and unclassified requirements. The unclassified standards include a 100-foot setback for the buildings from the exterior walls which should be three meters high, in addition to reinforced ballistic doors and windows which can withstand an hour of sustained assault.
Based on the video and photos, none appear present at the consulate.
The former regional security officer, who has worked in the Middle East, told Fox News that the standards are designed to give an ambassador, his or her team and diplomatic security that "golden hour" to burn classified dockets and call in military help for an emergency evacuation.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Pamela Browne contributed to this report.