US opens Benghazi attack probe

SUSAN CORNWELL AND TABASSUM ZAKARIA
Last updated 13:30 16/11/2012
Michael Morell
Reuters

FRONTING UP: Acting CIA Director Michael Morell arrives for the closed Senate Intelligence Committee meeting on the attack of the American Consulate in Benghazi.

Chris Stevens
Reuters
CHRIS STEVENS: Killed in an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

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LATEST: Five days after the attack on the US Consulate in Libya, UN ambassador Susan Rice's description of what led to the deadly incident was based on initial intelligence that was later proved incorrect, the deputy CIA director has told Congress.

In a closed-door session with the House Intelligence committee, Mike Morell said Rice was provided with an unclassified version of events at the US mission in Benghazi that left American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead, according to Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the panel.

The assessment concluded that a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video had evolved into an attack on the American consulate, a description that Rice presented in television interviews the Sunday morning after the attack.

Schiff told reporters that he didn't think the intelligence community had politicized the information.

''They gave us the best initial assessments, and those proved inaccurate, but they warned us those assessments were subject to change as they got more information,'' he said.

Rice's comments on national television have drawn fierce criticism, with some Senate Republicans promising to block her nomination if President Barack Obama taps her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama angrily defended Rice on Wednesday at a White House news conference and called the complaints outrageous attempts to besmirch her reputation. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, said Rice ''was given that same information we received from the administration through the intelligence community. And that's the information she testified to, end of story.''

In one of her TV interviews, Rice said she was providing the ''best information and the best assessment we have today.''

''In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video,'' she said.

''People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent. 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.''

That answer has drawn constant criticism from Republicans, who question why Rice failed to call the event a terrorist attack.

Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they would work to defeat Rice's selection if she is nominated to be the nation's top diplomat.

Graham said Wednesday that he couldn't back anyone who is ''up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.'' Ruppersberger said the initial attack on the consulate was chaotic, with ''a lot of people running around,'' while the second attack, on a CIA annex near the consulate, ''seemed a lot more sophisticated,'' with the use of mortars, more clearly pointing to terrorist training and tactics.

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Obama aides say the president's vigorous defense of Rice during the news conference should not be seen as a sign that he plans to nominate her for the top job at the State Department.

Instead, they said it reflects a frustration within the administration that Rice, a longtime Obama adviser, is being unfairly targeted by Republican lawmakers. Rice continues to have strong support within the White House as a candidate for the top post at the State Department.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, remains a leading contender as well.

Obama aides say the president hasn't made a decision on that job or others opening in his administration, and may not do so until after Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, several House and Senate committees are conducting hearings on the Libya attack, with the Senate Intelligence Committee meeting Thursday afternoon with Morell and other administration officials. The panels will hear from former CIA Director David Petraeus on Friday, one week after he resigned amid the revelation of an extramarital affair. The lawmakers viewed video of the Benghazi attack that showed events in real time.

They watched a composite of security video from the consulate and a surveillance feed taken by an unarmed CIA Predator drone. ''We saw a real-time film ... of exactly what happened,'' Democratic Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein told reporters.

She said there would be at least two more closed fact-finding hearings before lawmakers would conduct a public session to share what they had learned.

''We know mistakes were made and we've got to learn from that,'' Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the committee's ranking Republican, told reporters. Clinton has agreed to appear before Congress to answer questions about the Benghazi attack.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Clinton will testify after an independent Accountability Review Board presents its findings. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she expects the report's completion in December and that Clinton will appear at that time.

Toner said he could not say when the review board would complete its work, but other State Department officials have said it may not be finished until January, meaning that any Clinton appearance could be delayed.

McCain and Graham have called for the creation of a Watergate-style select committee to investigate the attack, but there is little interest in that step beyond a few Republican lawmakers.

Both Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner said the existing congressional committees should handle the work. 

LAWMAKERS BRIEFED

Lawmakers have been briefed about the timeline of events surrounding the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which has become a growing sore spot between Republicans and President Barack Obama.

Intelligence, FBI and State Department officials first briefed the House Intelligence Committee and then the Senate intelligence panel about the September 11 attack that killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

"In the end, the assessment was still the same - that in Benghazi, you had a group of extremists who took advantage of a situation and unfortunately we lost four American lives," Representative California Dutch Ruppersberger said afterward.

Former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned last week over an extramarital affair, will testify about Benghazi before the same two committees on Friday morning (local time).

Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he planned to ask, "General Petraeus, did your resignation have anything to do with the fact that you were supposed to testify before Congress?".

Ruppersberger said he had been told that was not the case, but wanted to clarify that. The issue of whether the Petraeus affair had affected national security was sure to come up, he said.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of providing misinformation in the early days following the attack.

Administration officials say their initial comments that it appeared the attack grew spontaneously out of protests over an anti-Muslim film rather than a premeditated strike were based on the best available information at that time.

When Petraeus first briefed lawmakers the day after the attack, based on a video of it, he had called it spontaneous, but that extremists were also involved, Ruppersberger said.

"It was a combination of both. What General Petraeus basically said in the beginning was that this was spontaneous but that there were extremists, there were terrorists, involved in this situation," he said.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said there would be more hearings, including on "the allegations concerning General Petraeus", without elaborating.

Democrats who spoke after the House committee hearing were eager to portray the information behind closed doors as a vindication of the initial assessment that Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, provided on Sunday television talk shows five days after the attack.

CLINTON EXPECTED TO TESTIFY

Two top Republican senators threatened to block any nomination of Rice to a Cabinet post, which must be confirmed by the Senate, for making initial comments that suggested a spontaneous attack that grew out of a protest over an anti-Muslim film.

Obama came to her defence at a news conference yesterday and said if she was the right person for a spot in his Cabinet, he would nominate her, and if Republicans had a problem with the handling of Benghazi, "they should go after me".

Rice is considered a potential candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she plans to leave, or for another top job in the administration.

Clinton is expected to testify before Congress about the Benghazi attack after a State Department review is completed, likely in December.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and Undersecretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy testified behind closed doors at separate hearings of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

None of those officials made any comments to reporters outside the specially reserved basement room for the House Intelligence Committee with a red sign on the door that reads: "restricted area".

The few lawmakers who made comments on leaving were Democrats, who generally said they were "satisfied" with the information provided at the hearing.

Schiff said he expected the questions for Petraeus on Friday to be "confined to the events in Benghazi, and we'll get his perspective on what information he knew and how his assessment of that intelligence changed over time."

- Reuters

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