WASHINGTON — Extremists from groups linked to al-Qaida struck the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in a "deliberate and organized terrorist attack," the top U.S. intelligence agency said Friday, as it took responsibility for the Obama administration's initial claims that the deadly assault grew from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.
The unusual statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence appeared to have two goals: updating the public on the latest findings of the investigation into the assault, and shielding the White House from a political backlash over its original accounts.
"In the immediate aftermath (of the assault), there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo," spokesman Sean Turner said in the statement. "We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly."
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault staged by scores of assailants on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have accused the administration of misleading the country about the nature of the attack to protect Obama's campaign claim that his policies have hurt al-Qaida's ability to launch attacks.
Turner's statement did not quiet the political backlash. Shortly after it was issued, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called for the resignation of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was the first senior official to detail the administration's initial account that the attack was spontaneous during appearances on Sunday morning television talk shows.
Rice's spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, responded by noting that Rice's comments "were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an FBI investigation was under way" and that she was providing "the best information that the administration had at the time provided by the U.S. intelligence community."