U.S. intelligence committees open Benghazi attack probe

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 15, 2012 9:15pm GMT

A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers were briefed on Thursday about the timeline of events surrounding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which has become a growing sore spot between Republicans and President Barack Obama.

Intelligence, FBI and State Department officials first briefed the House Intelligence Committee and then the Senate intelligence panel about the September 11 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

"In the end, the assessment was still the same - that in Benghazi, you had a group of extremists who took advantage of a situation and unfortunately we lost four American lives," Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said afterward.

Former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned last week over an extramarital affair, will testify about Benghazi before the same two committees on Friday morning.

Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he planned to ask, "General Petraeus, did your resignation have anything to do with the fact that you were supposed to testify before Congress?"

Ruppersberger said he had been told that was not the case, but wanted to clarify that. The issue of whether the Petraeus affair had affected national security was sure to come up on Friday, he said.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of providing misinformation in the early days following the attack.

Administration officials say their initial comments that it appeared the attack grew spontaneously out of protests over an anti-Muslim film rather than a premeditated strike were based on the best available information at that time.

When Petraeus first briefed lawmakers the day after the attack, based on a video of it, he had called it spontaneous, but that extremists were also involved, Ruppersberger said.

"It was a combination of both. What General Petraeus basically said in the beginning was that this was spontaneous … but that there were extremists, there were terrorists, involved in this situation," he said.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said there would be more hearings, including on "the allegations concerning General Petraeus," without elaborating.

Democrats who spoke after the House committee hearing were eager to portray the information behind closed doors as a vindication of the initial assessment that Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, provided on Sunday television talk shows five days after the attack.

CLINTON EXPECTED TO TESTIFY

Two top Republican senators threatened on Wednesday to block any nomination of Rice to a Cabinet post, which must be confirmed by the Senate, for making initial comments that suggested a spontaneous attack that grew out of a protest over an anti-Muslim film.

Obama came to her defence at a news conference on Wednesday and said if she was the right person for a spot in his Cabinet, he would nominate her, and if Republicans had a problem with the handling of Benghazi, "they should go after me."

Rice is considered a potential candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she plans to leave, or for another top job in the administration.

Clinton is expected to testify before Congress about the Benghazi attack after a State Department review is completed, likely in December.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell, National Counterterrorism Centre Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and Undersecretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy testified behind closed doors at separate hearings of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

None of those officials made any comments to reporters outside the specially reserved basement room for the House Intelligence Committee with a red sign on the door that reads: "restricted area."

The few lawmakers who made comments on leaving were Democrats, who generally said they were "satisfied" with the information provided at the hearing.

Schiff said he expected the questions for Petraeus on Friday to be "confined to the events in Benghazi, and we'll get his perspective on what information he knew and how his assessment of that intelligence changed over time."

(Editing by Warren Strobel, Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)