REFILE-U.S. had early indications Libya attack tied to organized militants

Reuters Middle East

* White House emphasized role of anti-Muslim film

* Republican lawmakers question administration's use of

intelligence

* Libya violence now an issue in presidential campaign

WASHINGTON Oct 2 (Reuters) - Within hours of last month's

attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya,

President Barack Obama's administration received about a dozen

intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda

were involved, three government sources said.

Despite these reports, in public statements and private

meetings, top U.S. officials spent nearly two weeks highlighting

intelligence suggesting that the attacks were spontaneous

protests against an anti-Muslim film, while playing down the

involvement of organized militant groups.

It was not until last Friday that Director of National

Intelligence James Clapper's office issued an unusual public

statement, which described how the picture that intelligence

agencies presented to U.S. policymakers had "evolved" into an

acknowledgement that the attacks were "deliberate and organized"

and "carried out by extremists."

The existence of the early reports appears to raise fresh

questions about the Obama administration's public messaging

about the attack as it seeks to fend off Republican charges that

the White House failed to prevent a terrorist strike that left a

U.S. ambassador and three others dead.

"What we're seeing now is the picture starting to develop

that it wasn't a problem with the intelligence that was given,

it's what they did with the intelligence that they were given,"

Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House of

Representatives Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on

Tuesday.

"This picture is still a little fuzzy but it is starting to

come into focus and it appears that there were, very early on,

some indications that there was jihadist participation in the

event," he said.

The Obama administration has strongly defended its public

accounts of what happened in Benghazi, and said its

understanding has evolved as additional information came in.

"At every step of the way, the administration has based its

public statements on the best assessments that were provided by

the intelligence community. As the intelligence community

learned more information, they updated Congress and the American

people on it," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Some officials said U.S. spy agencies tried to avoid drawing

premature conclusions about how the violence began and who

organized it.

"Unless you have very good reports that strongly suggest who

was behind the attack for sure, it is prudent to be careful,

because placing emphasis publicly, even tentatively, on any one

group or groups too soon can lead everyone down the wrong path,"

said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Republicans have sought to make the shifting stories told by

administration officials about the attack, and inadequate

security precautions at the U.S. diplomatic site in Libya, a

major issue in the presidential campaign leading up to the Nov.

6 election.

Two House Republicans said they would hold Congress' first

hearing on the matter on Oct. 10.

CIA TALKING POINTS

The stream of intelligence flowing into Washington

within hours of the Benghazi attacks contained data from

communications intercepts and U.S. informants, which were then

fashioned into polished initial assessments for policymakers.

Officials familiar with them said they contained evidence

that members of a militant faction, Ansar al-Sharia, as well as

al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, were involved in the

assaults.

The report did not allege the attacks were a reaction to the

anti-Muslim film, but acknowledged it was possible that the

attackers sought to use an outbreak of violence in Cairo over

the film, which insulted the Prophet Mohammad, as a pretext for

attacks.

One official said initial reporting suggested militants had

begun planning attacks on U.S. targets in Benghazi before Sept.

11, but may well have decided to use the protests as a pretext

for moving forward that day.

Reuters reported on Sept. 12, citing U.S. government

officials, that the attacks may have been planned and organized

in advance, and that members of Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM may

have been involved.

Yet on Sept. 15, administration officials, relying upon what

they said was other information from intelligence agencies,

circulated to members of Congress a set of talking points

prepared by the CIA that purported to summarize what U.S.

intelligence knew.

The talking points said: "The currently available

information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were

spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in

Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S.

diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex."

The document then noted that "There are indications that

extremists participated in the violent demonstrations." It

contained no further elaboration.

The talking points reflected information that White House

officials and Congress were given in closed-door intelligence

briefings in the days immediately after the attacks. In one such

session, CIA director David Petraeus used lines which paralleled

the talking points.

"It seems increasingly clear that the briefings provided to

Congress and the public about the Benghazi attack were at best

incomplete and at worst misleading," Senator Saxby Chambliss,

the Republican vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee,

told Reuters.

"Within hours of the attack, intelligence assessments

highlighted the role of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, but the

administration focused instead on a video that appears to have

had little, if anything, to do with the violence in Benghazi,"

Chambliss said.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also

appeared to use information contained in the talking points on

Sunday Sept. 16 when she made five appearances on TV talk shows.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Rice said the Benghazi attacks

were triggered by a "hateful video," which prompted a

"spontaneous protest" that "spun from there into something more

violent." Regarding militants, she said only that it was "clear

that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated

the violence."

Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican, has urged

Rice to resign over the issue, a call the State Department has

rejected.

A ROLE FOR ANTI-MUSLIM FILM?

The Daily Beast website reported last week that in the hours

after the attack, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored

communications between members of Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM.

Ansar al-Sharia operatives "bragged" about their attack on the

U.S. diplomatic mission and acted as if they were "subordinate"

to AQIM, it quoted a U.S. official as saying.

It now appears questionable that the anti-Muslim film, which

sparked a violent protest against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo

earlier on Sept. 11, played a significant role in the Benghazi

attack. Some U.S. officials have not foreclosed that

possibility.

But Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said

he had never seen intelligence reporting to support such an

assertion.

"I haven't seen anything that shows that the intelligence

community said on the day of, or the immediate day following,

that this was a spontaneous event," he said.

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