U.S. intelligence officials say in this case the delay was due in part to the time it took to analyze various conflicting accounts. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the incident publicly, explained that "it was clear a group of people gathered that evening" in Benghazi, but that the early question was "whether extremists took over a crowd or they were the crowd."
But that explanation has been met with concern in Congress.
"The early sense from the intelligence community differs from what we are hearing now," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said. "It ended up being pretty far afield, so we want to figure out why ... though we don't want to deter the intelligence community from sharing their best first impressions" after such events in the future.
"The intelligence briefings we got a week to 10 days after were consistent with what the administration was saying," said Rep. William Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Thornberry would not confirm the existence of the early CIA report but voiced skepticism over how sure intelligence officials, including CIA Director David Petraeus, seemed of their original account when they briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"How could they be so certain immediately after such events, I just don't know," he said. "That raises suspicions that there was political motivation."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment.
Two officials who witnessed Petraeus' closed-door testimony to lawmakers in the week after the attack said that during questioning he acknowledged that there were some intelligence analysts who disagreed with the conclusion that an unruly mob angry over the video had initiated the violence. But those officials said Petraeus did not mention the CIA's early eyewitness reports. He did warn legislators that the account could change as more intelligence was uncovered, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the hearing was closed.
Beyond the question of what was known immediately after the attack, it's also proving difficult to pinpoint those who set the fire that apparently killed Stevens and his communications aide or launched the mortars that killed two ex-Navy SEALs who were working as contract security guards at a fallback location. That delay is prompting lawmakers to question whether the intelligence community has the resources it needs to investigate this attack in particular or to wage the larger fight against al-Qaida in Libya or across Africa.
Intelligence officials say the leading suspected culprit is a local Benghazi militia, Ansar al-Shariah. The group denies responsibility for the attack but is known to have ties to a leading African terror group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of its leaders and fighters were spotted by Libyan locals at the consulate during the violence, and intelligence intercepts show the militants were in contact with AQIM militants before and after the attack, one U.S. intelligence official said.
But U.S. intelligence has not been able to match those reported sightings with the faces of attackers caught on security camera recordings during the attack since many U.S. intelligence agents were pulled out of Benghazi in the aftermath of the violence, the two U.S. intelligence officials said.
Nor have they found proof to back up their suspicion that the attack was preplanned, as indicated by the military-style tactics the attackers used, setting up a perimeter of roadblocks around the consulate and the backup compounds, then attacking the main entrance to distract, while sending a larger force to assault the rear.
Clear-cut answers may prove elusive because such an attack is not hard to bring about relatively swiftly with little preplanning or coordination in a post-revolutionary country awash with weapons, where the government is so new it still relies on armed militants to keep the peace. Plus, the location of U.S. diplomat enclaves is an open secret for the locals.
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