Questions Still Linger After U.S. Consulate Attack

Two weeks after the attacks that killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, there is still confusion about what exactly happened and whether the United States might have prevented the tragedy. Critics of the Obama administration accuse the White House of dissembling about the attack. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talks to Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, an update on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans. More than two weeks have gone by and a fight is brewing about whether the Obama administration has been hiding what really happened, whether the attack was planned in advance, whether it was a terrorist attack, and whether al-Qaida played a role.

Earlier today, aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted the administration has been transparent.

JAY CARNEY: 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 in the assessments of our intelligence community.

BLOCK: Again, that's White House spokesman Jay Carney earlier today. Well, to sort this out, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins me now. And Dina, what about that question. Has the administration, in fact, been transparent about that attack in Benghazi?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, you know, all of this is taking place during a very politically charged time ahead of the election, so that's coloring how everything is being seen. The most problematic statement from the Obama administration came really early on from Ambassador Susan Rice. She appeared on all the Sunday news shows back on September 16th, five days after the attack and here's what she said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, she was referring to the protests in Egypt that were sparked by that video that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. And then she said after that that the U.S. thought that extremists had hijacked the demonstrations and then attacked the consulate. And this is one of the big controversies. Were they protests that were hijacked or was this a planned terrorist attack?

BLOCK: And as to that question about was this, in fact, planned, what have you found out?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what we're learning is this wasn't entirely spontaneous, that there was some terrorism connection. What Ambassador Rice wasn't saying was that the administration knew within a day or two of the attacks that there had been telephone contacts between extremists in Libya and al-Qaida's arm in North Africa, a group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

What's less clear is just how much al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was involved.

BLOCK: Well, yesterday, in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said for the first time that that al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, was involved, which seems to be quite different from what the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said earlier. Is the administration changing its story here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, there's been a lot of focus on the comments that Secretary Clinton made at the U.N. And while it's true that was the first time that she has said al-Qaida might be involved, one of the administration's top terrorism officials, Matthew Olsen, said the very same thing last week. This is what he said.

MATTHEW OLSEN: 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.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, he's the head of the National Counterterrorism Center and he was testifying before Congress. And to be honest, several news organizations, including NPR, had reported on these phone calls between AQIM and extremists in Libya last week. The important thing about those phone calls is that they came on the day of the attacks, September 11th, not in advance.

So if this was planned, it looks like it was planned pretty quickly.

BLOCK: Now, Dina, the FBI is still investigating what happened and apparently agents still have not gotten to the scene of the attack, to the consulate in Benghazi. Why is that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the way it was described to me is that basically no one is in charge in Benghazi right now, so there are real safety concerns for agents there. One official told me that the reality is everything that can really help with an investigation is gone 24 hours after a crime is committed, especially in a place like Benghazi where people were actually looting the compound.

So the FBI's presence on the ground isn't as critical as it might first appear. The FBI had interviewed people who were there when they were flown to Germany right after it happened. They have intelligence intercepts. They've been working this from Tripoli and they expect to go to Benghazi soon. But right now, the situation there was described to me as just too dicey.

BLOCK: Okay, Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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