The administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi fractured on Wednesday.
During a morning hearing on Capitol Hill, Matt Olsen, the director of the multi-agency National Counterterrorism Center, said the ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed by a jihadi group.
“Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” Olson told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat.
“We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida’s affiliates; in particular, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” said Olson, according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine.
Although his description of a “terrorist attack” implies that an organized group of jihadis mounted the attack, Olson stopped short of saying the attack was a planned surprise assault of the unfortified and poorly guarded compound.
“What we don’t have, at this point, is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack,” he told the senators.
Olsen’s acknowledgement of “terrorism,” however, undermines the White House’s repeated suggestions that the killings were an unplanned result of a protest against a little-known YouTube video produced in California.
White House spokesman Jay Carney used his Sept. 19 morning briefing to keep pushing that widely derided position.
“Based on the information that we had at the time and have to this day, we do not have evidence that it was premeditated,” he said.
That’s a carefully-phrased non-denial, and it marks a step back from his Sept. 14 effort to portray the attack as a protest against the video — not the administration’s policy.
“The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims — many Muslims — find offensive,” he said on Sept. 14. “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.”
Olson’s acknowledgment of a “terrorist attack” at the hearing undercuts Carney’s portrayal and highlights a growing political problem for President Barack Obama’s administration and re-election campaign.
One of Obama 2008 promises was to improve relations with Islamic countries, and he pushed hard for a “new beginning” with a high-profile 2009 speech in Cairo.
His strategy sidelined Arab secular dictatorships and boosted popular Islamic parties, such as the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, for example, the dictatorship has been replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood government.
In Libya, Obama used U.S. air power — but not U.S. ground troops — to break the dictator’s army, allowing rebels to kill him and build their own government.
However, Islamist rebels in Libya used the wartime chaos to collect recruits and to arm themselves with weapons from government storehouses, including weapons that may have been used against the embassy on Sept. 11, 2012.
Carney admitted that problem on Sept. 19, saying that Libya “has an abundance of weapons.”
“There are, unfortunately, many bad actors in that country, as there are throughout the region,” he said.
GOP politicians are carefully spotlighting the problems created by Obama’s foreign policy.
“We’re still looking to see what the legacy will be in North Africa and the Middle East,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters during a Sept. 19 press conference.
Carney repeatedly fended off skeptical reporters by saying the Benghazi attack is still under investigation.
“There’s an active investigation,” he said. “If that active investigation produces facts that lead to a different conclusion, we will make clear that that’s where the investigation has led,” he said.
Carney did not say if the investigation would be released prior to the November election.
The administration’s “new beginning” strategy has also spurred conflict by helping anti-Americans Islamists win control of Egypt’s government during elections held in 2011 and 2012.
Egypt’s new Islamist government has its own goals, including greater financial aid and respect for Egypt, which is crippled by poor productivity and education, high poverty, and inadequate fuel and grain supplies.
On Sept. 11, 2012, Egyptian resentment against Israel and the West reached the U.S. embassy when the government’s police did not stop rioters from breaching the walls and raising a jihadi flag.
Since then, Obama has pressured Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, to better protect the U.S. Embassy, but Morsi’s deputies continue to make veiled threats at the United States. For example, his prime minister has suggested that there will be more riots unless the United States curbs domestic criticism of Islam.