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The next day, Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, retracted his entire day-after brief to the White House.

“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,” said the DNI statement, put out under the name of his spokesman, Shawn Turner. “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.”

At the White House, the retreat continued, with Mr. Carney first defending Mrs. Rice.

“No one in the administration has claimed to know all the answers,” he said. “We have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time, and that information has evolved. For example, if any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept. 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. As time went on, additional information became available. Clearly, we know more today than we did on the Sunday after the attack.”

Then, on the eve of the first congressional hearing that promised to embarrass the administration, the State Department quickly organized a conference call with reporters to declare that it never concluded that the assault stemmed from a demonstration.

“That was not our conclusion,” a senior State Department official said on the condition of anonymity, noting that security cameras showed no protest. (In fact, future disclosures would show that State pushed the CIA to blame the attack on protesters.)

The backtracking started as the first whistleblowers came forward to tell a completely different story about Benghazi.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had dispatched investigators to Benghazi to find the truth. The bureaucracy started handing over incriminating emails. Libyan diplomats had been warning for months of increased violence and the need for more security. State ignored them.

Mr. Issa began a hearing Oct. 10 by noting the crumbling administration story line.

“Yesterday they held a broad news conference over the phone in which they made it very clear that it had never been the State Department’s position — I repeat, never been the State Department’s position — that in fact this assault was part of a reaction to a video or the like. This is corroborated by numerous witnesses and whistleblowers.”

Mr. Issa’s first two witnesses were Mr. Nordstrom, the security officer who likened Foggy Bottom to the Taliban, and Army National Guard Col. Andrew Wood, a Green Beret who headed three site-security teams in Tripoli.

Rebutting Ms. Nuland’s assurance that security was “robust,” Col. Wood said State pulled all his teams out of the country over his protests.

“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” he testified. “The situation remained uncertain, and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak.”

He pointed to the ambush on the British ambassador’s convoy, prompting London to abandon Benghazi.

“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi,” Col. Wood said. “We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi.”

Story Continues →