The Cable

State Department setting up independent panel to investigate Benghazi attack

The State Department is setting up an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate what happened in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides told him the State Department had already begun setting up the panel, which Kerry said would be independently appointed and accountable to Congress. Kerry said the panel's existence preempted the need for Congress to quickly pass a bill, put forth by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), requiring State to report to Congress on last week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen within 30 days.

"The State Department must convene an Accountability Review Board (ARB) in instances in which there has been loss of life or significant destruction of property at a U.S. mission abroad. The Secretary must provide the SFRC with a report on the findings and recommendations of the ARB," Kerry said at Thursday's SFRC business meeting.

Kerry said the law requires the panel be convened within 60 days of the attack, would examine all aspects of the attacks, and is required to report to Congress its findings. If the panel does not satisfy Congress's desire for information about the attacks, Kerry would then support legislation calling for more thorough reporting on the attacks as well as security procedures at all U.S. diplomatic posts, he said.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials will come to Capitol Hill to give a briefing on the attacks to all senators who wish to attend, Kerry said.

"Given all of the information that should be forthcoming already, I did not think it would be productive to take up the reporting bill at this time. But I do want to thank Senators DeMint and Corker for the initiative and let them know that I share their instincts that this warrants our close attention," Kerry said. 

DeMint said Wednesday he was willing to wait for the State Department panel's report on the attacks before pressing for new legislation demanding more information. On Sept. 14 when he introduced the bill, DeMint called for transparency and accountability from the administration regarding the attacks.

"The attacks on American embassies and diplomats are outrageous. The administration owes the American people detailed answers on how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future," DeMint said then. "It now appears these violent acts may have been coordinated terrorist attacks against America around the anniversary of 9/11. There may have even been warnings beforehand. Americans need to know if we were properly prepared and what steps must be taken to protect our diplomats in these dangerous environments."

The committee also approved nine ambassadorial nominations at the hearing, including the nomination of Richard Olson to be ambassador to Pakistan. The committee held its hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft to become the next ambassador in Iraq on Wednesday morning, so he was not on the committee agenda, but aides said that there was broad support for dispatching the Beecroft nomination out of committee without a formal vote so he could be confirmed this week before the Senate leaves town.

All of the ambassador nominations could fall victim to the ongoing dispute between Senate leadership and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over Paul's demand for a floor vote on his amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) signaled progress but no resolution in the dispute with Paul on Wednesday afternoon and Reid pledged to work to confirm Olson and Beecroft this week.

"I'd love to get the ambassador to Pakistan. We have two countries, Iraq and Pakistan, who do not have an American ambassador because the Republicans have held these up," Reid said. "We're going to be here as long as the Republicans force us to be here. We could finish this stuff tomorrow, but it's up to them."

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."