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Early U.S. explanation of Libya attack based on intel assessment

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:07 PM EDT, Fri October 19, 2012

Washington (CNN) -- An Obama administration official whose now controversial comment that the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya was "spontaneous" relied on talking points provided by the CIA based on its assessment that an intelligence official said on Friday was updated days later with new information.

The disclosure to CNN appears to offer some clarity around the administration's early stage explanation of the September 11 attack by armed militants that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

But CNN National Security Contributor Fran Townsend injected a new element into the crucial time line on Friday night, reporting on Anderson Cooper 360 that senior intelligence officials had multiple conversations with senior White House officials in the first 24 hours after the attack.

Townsend, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush, added that "we don't know" what was said.

"But I can tell you from having lived through these crises, you're getting a constant feed of what the intelligence community understands about what is currently going on and what has happened on the ground," Townsend said.

She added that "they will caveat the information" because in the first hours there "will be all sorts of information, some of it which will turn out not to have been true."

Additionally, a senior Republican lawmaker said members of Congress had information from intelligence officials within a day of the incident that it was a military style attack.

President Barack Obama faces harsh criticism from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his administration's handling of security in Benghazi ahead of the attack and its slow-to-evolve, politically sensitive explanation of what occurred.

The issue is expected to be highlighted on Monday when the candidates square off in their third and final debate, which will focus on national security. Romney is trying to undercut Obama's perceived strength with the electorate on foreign affairs in a tightly contested campaign.

Romney has claimed the Obama administration's statements about the attack in the days that followed were confusing at best, and illustrate his contention that the president's foreign policy is incoherent and has made America less respected and more more vulnerable.

Rice comments

Republicans have seized on televised remarks made five days after the attack by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. In one appearance, she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that an assessment based on the best information available indicated a spontaneous reaction to demonstrations over an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States.

Several senior administration officials told CNN that Rice's use of the word "spontaneous" came directly from an assessment provided to Congress by the CIA and was not edited by the White House.

"The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations," the document stated.

But the intelligence official said it took days to sort out information around the attack.

"It wasn't until after the points were used in public that people reconciled contradictory information and assessed there probably wasn't a protest around the time of the attack," the official told CNN.

With regard to initial thinking the incident started as a protest - an administration official maintained that intelligence coming from human sources and intercepts all indicated there was a protest on the scene. At the time, there were many demonstrations across the Middle East over the film.

The early talking points outlining the incident as spontaneous were written so members of Congress and senior officials could say something publicly about the attack, the intelligence official said.

"A key question early on was whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants. It took time—until that next week—to sort through varied and sometimes conflicting accounts to understand the group's overall composition," the intelligence official said.

But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, told CNN that the panel had information from the intelligence community within 24 hours of the incident that it was a military style attack.

"If you look at all of the information leading up to (the attack) from an intelligence perspective, it's really confounding how you can come to a conclusion and then promote it for days in the face of all of that information that this was about a video," Rogers said.

The disclosures on intelligence, however, raises the question of whether those officials are now being blamed for confusion about Benghazi events.

"The intelligence community is not being blamed. Administration officials have made it very clear, the (intelligence community) is providing the best possible assessment it can, another U.S. intelligence official said. "There is no sense anyone is throwing the (intelligence community) under the bus."

Senate committee ups pressure on administration

Separately, a Senate committee has requested documents and a classified briefing from intelligence officials about the Benghazi time line and whether statements by administration officials were inaccurate.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also wants to know about threat assessments and security concerns before the attack. A hearing is planned when lawmakers return to Washington after the election.

Romney suggested at Tuesday's debate in New York that the Obama administration played politics by failing to immediately acknowledge what occurred in Benghazi was a terror attack. Obama bristled, calling that claim "offensive."

When Obama said he described the attack as an act of terror the day after it occurred, Romney challenged him. Obama responded by saying, "check the transcript" of White House remarks on the incident.

CNN's Pam Benson and Suzanne Kelly contributed to this report

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