The top US intelligence agency is taking the blame for initially calling the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi a reaction to an Islamophobic video, thereby taking the heat away from the White House.
The attack was later determined to have been a planned-out terrorist act on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda.
Shortly after the assault on the American diplomatic mission in Libya, during which the US ambassador to the country was killed, the Obama administration claimed it was a spontaneous attack in reaction to a controversial American-made video mocking Islam's prophet, Muhammad.
However, after investigating the attack, the government determined that it was a deliberate and planned assault.
The Officer of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on Friday took credit for the initial claim that it was a spontaneous reaction. Spokesman Sean Turner said in a statement that it was his office who “provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly.”
The DNI is led by retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper, and has oversight over 16 other US intelligence agencies.
“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.
The spokesman indicated that his office had not yet determined who was directly responsible for the attack – whether it was an individual, an organization, al-Qaeda itself or al-Qaeda sympathizers.
“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,” he said. “However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, al-Qaeda."
McClatchy DC suggested that the DNI statement is an attempt to protect the White House from further criticism at a crucial time before the election.
“The unusual statement … appeared to have two goals: updating the public on the latest findings of the investigation into the assault, and shielding the White House from a political backlash over its original accounts,” McClatchy writes.
Critics of the Obama administration have accused the White House of misleading Americans about the nature of the attack. Obama has fought to reduce al-Qaeda’s influence for years, and an organized attack by the terrorist organization could make the administration’s efforts look less effective, critics say.
Christopher Stevens was the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979, and his death came about two months before the presidential election – a time when Obama’s foreign policy is under serious scrutiny by voters. The president has so far held back from personally calling the Benghazi attack, which left three other Americans in addition to the ambassador dead, a terrorist attack.
But unnamed officials last week confirmed to Fox News that the White House knew al-Qaeda was linked to the attack since the day it occurred.
Questioned Wednesday by reporters about why Obama has so far refused to use the term, the White House Press Secretary answered, “it is certainly … the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.”