The Obama administration for the first time Wednesday acknowledged that last week’s assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a “terrorist attack,” as lawmakers on Capitol Hill raised questions about security at the consulate and asserted that the attack should have been anticipated by intelligence and counterterrorism agencies.
The assertions came during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, during which intelligence officials also revealed to lawmakers a growing concern that Iran’s extremist militias have been behind recent terrorist attacks against Israeli targets around the globe and might seek to strike the United States.
The Libya developments and the disclosure of intelligence on Iran came on a day of acute awareness among Western powers of the heightened Muslim anger toward a film made in the U.S. that denigrates Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
With the now infamous “Innocence of Muslims” Internet clip having triggered anti-Western demonstrations across much of the globe, France ordered its embassies and schools to close in about 20 nations Friday in anticipation of a new wave of fury over vulgar caricatures of Muhammad just published in a French magazine. And the U.S. has closed temporarily its consulate in Indonesia’s third-largest city, Medan, owing to protests over the film.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, ranking Republican on the homeland security panel, said she was “stunned and appalled” that there hadn’t been better security for Americans at the consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi last week, “given the high-threat environment.”
The attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, “should have been anticipated, based on the previous attacks against Western targets, the proliferation of dangerous weapons in Libya, the presence of al Qaeda in that country and the overall threat environment,” Mrs. Collins said.
Call for probe
Her remarks came during a hearing in which Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acknowledged that Mr. Stevens and the others were “killed in the course of a terrorist attack” — a comment that signaled a shift in the narrative set by the Obama administration, which has resisted framing the attack as premeditated.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to appear Thursday on Capitol Hill for a round of classified meetings with members of Congress regarding concerns about the security of U.S. diplomats.
Security questions have mounted in the face of the widespread protests that saw American flags desecrated and U.S. Embassy walls breached in several Middle Eastern cities over the past week.
It was not clear Wednesday whether Mrs. Clinton has moved to form an investigative State Department panel to review whether the security detail in Benghazi was adequate.
Mrs. Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, sent a letter to the State Department’s Office of Inspector General on Friday requesting an examination of the “nature and sufficiency of security at the Benghazi facility.”
Federal law requires the secretary of state to convene an “accountability review board” to conduct such an examination in the event of an attack like the one in Benghazi.
A spokesman at the State Department’s Office of Inspector General told The Washington Times that the office stands “ready to support the research and investigation any way we can, but it’s this accountability review board that actually has the lead.”
Under the law, Mrs. Clinton has 60 days to form the review board. State Department officials were unwilling to discuss the process Wednesday.
In an email to The Times, however, Mrs. Collins said she thinks “the review must be conducted by an independent entity like the inspector general.”
“Given the loss of lives of four Americans who were serving their country and the serious questions that have been raised about the security at our consulate in Benghazi, it is imperative that a nonpolitical, no-holds-barred examination be conducted,” she said.
‘An opportunistic attack’
Pressure has increased this week for Congress to conduct its own investigation into the Benghazi attack, along with the storming of the U.S. Embassy by protesters in Cairo. Both incidents occurred on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Such calls come in the heat of an election year. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of mishandling the situation. Mr. Obama, his fellow Democrats and even some Republicans have said the criticism was unseemly and not based in truth.
Political responses to the incidents became increasingly charged last weekend, when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on several news talk shows to assert that U.S. officials “don’t see, at this point, signs this was a coordinated, premeditated attack.”
“Certainly, on that particular question, I would say, yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,” Mr. Olsen said.
But he stopped short of characterizing the attack as one that had been planned by terrorists to coincide with the Sept. 11 anniversary, saying it was “a more complicated question” that intelligence officials are “spending a great deal of time looking at.”
“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy,” Mr. Olsen said. “The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours at our embassy — our diplomatic post in Benghazi.
“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack,” he added.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.