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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's get an update on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A debate has emerged about what happened on that Tuesday, September 11. On one side, there is the Obama administration. It says the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was spontaneous and involved local Islamist militias. The president of Libya blames it on foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida, and calls it a premeditated strike. Now, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, members of Congress are taking sides.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, got right to the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE COMMITTEE HEARING)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Do we have reason to believe, at this point, that that terrorist attack was pre-planned for Sept. 11? Or did the terrorists seize the moment to carry out a terrorist attack?

MATTHEW OLSEN: A more complicated question - and one, Mr. Chairman, that we are spending a great deal of time looking at, even as we speak.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That second voice, Matthew Olsen, head of the National Counterterrorism Center. And his narrative tracks with what the Obama administration has been saying.

OLSEN: What we don't have, at this point, is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack. Again, we're still developing facts, and still looking for any indications of substantial advanced planning. We just haven't seen that, at this point.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I've come to the opposite conclusion, and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That was Sen. Susan Collins, Republican from Maine. Sen. Lieberman sided with her.

LIEBERMAN: My own inclination is to agree with Sen. Collins, but I'll - as I usually do. But I'll await the investigation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's the first point of contention - whether the attack was planned in advance and therefore should or could have been stopped. But it's a complicated question. Olsen, from the National Counterterrorism Center, chose his words carefully. Let's listen again. He said the U.S. hadn't found...

OLSEN: ...any indications of substantial advanced planning...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Substantial advanced planning. There had been at least four attacks on Western targets in Benghazi - including the U.S. consulate - since June. So it was known that local militias were dangerous. So attacking the consulate could have been something that groups had in mind, maybe in a general way.

But the U.S. intelligence community hasn't uncovered a definitive plan to do so, which is why they think militias used the protest to seize the moment. That could explain the difference between the Libyan and U.S. narrative. Olsen also jumped into the debate over who might've been responsible. Was it al-Qaida, or some local extremists?

OLSEN: The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it's not necessarily an either-or ...

LIEBERMAN: OK.

OLSEN: ...proposition.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What has been lost, over the past week, is that there were two, separate attacks on U.S. targets in Benghazi that night - the first, on the consulate, around 10 p.m.; and another, more than a mile away, on a safe house where American consulate employees were hiding out. That second attack occurred at 2 in the morning. U.S. officials say that attack, in which the two Navy Seals died, was much more sophisticated; and came long enough after the first incident, it could have been quickly planned. But none of that came up during yesterday's public hearing.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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