The Cable

Obama official: Benghazi was a terrorist attack

The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was in fact "a terrorist attack" and the U.S. government has indications that members of al Qaeda were directly involved, a top Obama administration official said Wednesday morning.

"I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in response to questioning from Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) about the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

As for who was responsible, Olsen said it appears there were attackers from a number of different militant groups that operate in and around Benghazi, and said there are already signs of al Qaeda involvement.

"We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda's affiliates; in particular, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," he said.

The U.S. government just isn't sure yet whether the terrorist attack was pre-planned or whether it was an example of terrorists taking advantage of protests against an anti-Islam film, Olsen said.

"It appears that individuals who were certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded that evening and into the morning hours of September 12th. We do know that a number of militants in the area, as I mentioned, are well-armed and maintain those arms. What we don't have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack," he said.

His statements go further than those of the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who said last week that the protests in Cairo and Benghazi were a reaction to the video and not a pre-planned attack. Today, Carney didn't repeat the assertion that the video was solely to blame, but he said again that there is no evidence the Benghazi attack was pre-planned.

"What I can tell you is that, as I said last week, as ... our ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday and as I said the other day, based on what we know now and knew at the time, we have no evidence of a preplanned or premeditated attack," Carney said Wednesday. "It is a simple fact that there are in post-revolution, post-war Libya armed groups; there are bad actors hostile to the government, hostile to the West, hostile to the United States. And as has been the case in other countries in the region, it is certainly conceivable that these groups take advantage of and exploit situations that develop, when they develop, to protest against or attack either Westerners, Americans, Western sites, or American sites."

Committee ranking Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) declared at the hearing that she believes the attacks were planned well in advance and she referenced information she had received from U.S. intelligence officials behind closed doors.

"First, I will tell you that based on the briefings I have had, I've come to the opposite conclusion and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the date of 9/11, the anniversary of 9/11," she said. "I just don't think that people come to protests equipped with RPGs and other heavy weapons. And the reports of complicity -- and they are many -- with the Libyan guards who were assigned to guard the consulate also suggest to me that this was premeditated."

Collins said she was concerned by the lack of security at the Benghazi consulate, especially since there had been an attack on the mission in June and a more serious attack on the British ambassador's convoy as well. Olsen said the U.S. government was aware of the danger but not of impending attack that killed the four Americans.

"So there were reports detailing those attacks and detailing generally the threat that was faced to U.S. and Western individuals and interests in Eastern Libya from, again, armed militants as well as elements connected to al Qaeda," he said. "There was no specific intelligence regarding an imminent attack prior to September 11th on our post in Benghazi."

The Cable

Kerry threatens to restrict U.S. aid to Iraq over Syria

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Congress might start restricting U.S. aid to Iraq if the Iraqi government continues to allow Iran to use its airspace to supply the Syrian regime.

Kerry's warning came during Wednesday's confirmation hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Beecroft acknowledged during the hearing that the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to send supplies to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

"I have personally engaged on this repeatedly at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. My colleagues at Baghdad have engaged on this. We're continuing to engage on it, and every single visitor representing the U.S. government from the Senate, recently three visitors, to administration officials has raised it with the Iraqis and made very clear that we find this unacceptable and we find it unhelpful and detrimental to the region and to Iraq, and of course, first and foremost, to the Syrian people," said Beecroft. "It's something that needs to stop and that we are pressing and will continue to press until it does stop."

Kerry was skeptical that the Iraqi government would halt the flights and said that several members of his committee were keen on using U.S. aid to Iraq, which totaled $1.7 billion in fiscal 2012,as a lever to pressure the Maliki government to stop the flights.

"Well, I mean, it may stop when it's too late. If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn't seem to be having an impact, that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response," Kerry said. "I mean, it just seems completely inappropriate that we're trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they're working against our interest so overtly -- against their interests too, I might add."

"Senator, I share your concerns 100 percent. I'll continue to engage," said Beecroft. "And, with your permission, I will make very clear to the Iraqis what you've said to me today, and that is you find it alarming and that it may put our assistance and our cooperation on issues at stake."

Beecroft is currently the deputy chief of mission at the Baghdad embassy and charge d'affaires since the June departure of Jim Jeffrey. He previously served as ambassador to Jordan and before that had stints in Syria and Saudi Arabia and as executive assistant to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

In the SFRC hearing, Beecroft promised to continue to scale down the size of the staff at the Iraq embassy, which now totals about 14,000 including contractors, making it the largest U.S. diplomatic presence in the world.

Beecroft also said that the lack of an oil law in Iraq is a huge problem that the State Department has been engaging on, including during visits to Iraq this month by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and the State Department's energy czar Amb. Carlos Pasqual. Beecroft pointed to recent meetings between Kurdish officials and the Maliki government as a sign that progress was being made.

"So, while it's not the hydrocarbons law itself, these are issues which should smooth relations and allow for the hydrocarbons law to go forward in the future," Beecroft said.

"Well, inshallah," Kerry replied.

Kerry said he will push for the senate to confirm Beecroft before leaving town this weekend.

"This is not a time for delay. There's no substitute for having a confirmed ambassador in place and ready to hit the ground running, especially at this critical moment in the region," said Kerry. "It's my hope to move this nomination as rapidly as we can, in the next 48 hours, because we must have a confirmed ambassador. And it would be a dereliction of the Congress's responsibility were we to leave here for the next six weeks and not have done so."