In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, the Obama administration has been hesitant to describe the incident as a terrorist attack, leading Republicans to accuse the president of muddling the evidence for political purposes. However, in recent days officials have begun to admit that the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans wasn't a spontaneous attack sparked by protests over the Innocence of Muslims video. In her remarks at the United Nations this week, Hillary Clinton became the highest-ranking official to describe the attack as terrorism, and now U.S. intelligence officials confirm to the Washington Post that it appears to have been a planned assault carried out by militants with ties to Al Qaeda, though the terrorist group didn't directly orchestrate the attack.
Officials say the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia played a larger role in the attack, but it's believed that a few of the fighters were affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. One government source explained that those involved "all swim in the same, relatively small, extremist pond," and many have ties to various groups.
As for whether it was planned, an Obama administration official tells the Post that "extremists in the region had cased out and hoped to target U.S. facilities in Benghazi for some time" and the protests in Cairo "influenced their timing." However, the official added that, “There’s never been any intelligence, nor any I’m aware of now, that indicated this was a plot planned months in advance to get turned on on 9/11."
On Thursday White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed that politics played no role in the evolving descriptions of the attack, saying, "Every step of the way, the information that we have provided to you and the general public about the attack in Benghazi has been based on the best intelligence we’ve had and the assessments of our intelligence community." A New York Times report on the difficulty of gathering evidence in Benghazi bolstered the idea that officials genuinely don't know what happened there. The lack of security has prevented the FBI from visiting the crime scene, and investigators have resorted to questioning witnesses in cars parked outside the Tripoli embassy because they're concerned about letting people in the building.
Nevertheless, Republicans, fueled by claims that the White House knew within a day that the assault was a terrorist attack, have continued to question the Obama administration's account — though the Romney campaign has stopped just short of accusing Obama of "lying" about the situation. Senior aide Eric Fehrnstrom carefully avoided the word in a Thursday interview with Fox News, but his meaning was clear: "If in fact there were early intelligence reports indicating that this was a preplanned terrorist attack, and instead the administration was trying to persuade the American people that it was a spontaneous demonstration in response to a YouTube video, then of course, there does appear to be an attempt to mislead."