The day after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, military intelligence was spreading the word inside the Pentagon that an al Qaeda-linked group was likely responsible.
A source familiar with intelligence reporting told The Washington Times that the Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia was singled out as the likely principal planner and executor of the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
U.S. Special Operations Command quickly dispatched its troops to the region, but not into Libya directly, to stand by in case Ansar al-Sharia launched more attacks on Americans or took hostages.
The early assessment that Ansar al-Sharia likely carried out the attack is at odds with the Obama administration's repeated claims in the days after the bloodshed that the raid was a spontaneous protest against a video clip of a U.S.-produced movie that disparages Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Five days after the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on CBS' "Face the Nation," "We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned."
The source said some people in military intelligence thought otherwise: that Ansar al-Sharia was involved, that al Qaeda leaders were calling for attacks on the West and that the assault occurred on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks added up to a well-armed, planned operation. The attackers unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
The source asked not to be named or quoted directly.
A spokesman for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which did not return calls.
The revelation was made as two House Republican leaders called for an investigation into the Benghazi attack, citing information that the State Department had refused several requests from diplomats in Libya for more security in Benghazi before the fatal assault.
Reps. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the national security subcommittee, said in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Multiple U.S. federal government officials have confirmed that, prior to the Sept. 11 attack, the U.S. mission in Libya made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi. The mission in Libya, however, was denied these resources by officials in Washington."
The Issa-Chaffetz letter lists 13 security-related incidents in Benghazi, several of which were previously unreported, during the six months before the attack. The congressmen said they would hold a hearing Oct. 10.
The administration's version of events in Benghazi has shifted significantly, it says, because it gained more information in the days after the assault on the consulate.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a statement Friday explaining why the accounts changed.
"In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo," he said. "As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.
"It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate," Mr. Clapper said. "However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al Qaeda."
Last week, before Mr. Clapper released his statement, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he knew of no warning from the Defense Intelligence Agency that an attack was being planned.
"There was a thread of intelligence reporting that groups in the environment in eastern Libya were seeking to coalesce, but there wasn't anything specific and certainly not a specific threat to the consulate that I'm aware of," Gen. Dempsey told reporters.
Added Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta: "A group of terrorists obviously conducted that attack on the consulate and against our individuals. What terrorists were involved, I think, still remains to be determined by the investigation. But it clearly was a group of terrorists who conducted that attack against that facility."
In the days after the attack, several news outlets mentioned the possible involvement of the jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, which said it did not take part in the assault. Its leader, Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi, said in a rare interview with the BBC said that his group is not affiliated with al Qaeda but approves of its methods.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported Monday that the White House has held secret meetings in recent months to examine the threat posed by al-Qaeda's franchise in North Africa and to consider for the first time whether to prepare for unilateral strikes.
Citing U.S. officials, The Post said the meetings occurred in the months before the Benghazi attack and reflect concern that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has become more dangerous since seizing territory in Mali and acquiring weapons from post-revolution Libya.
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