When gunmen struck the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 of this year, the response from American officials was almost simultaneous: They immediately set about collecting information about the attackers, some of whom were quickly identified as foreigners, and tracing links from them to known extremist groups, a knowledgeable source has told Yahoo News.
The source's description came as fresh news accounts cast doubt on the White House's insistence that it has been forthright all along about what it knew about the attack. (I tweeted on Sept. 21 that this same source informed Yahoo News that the administration privately labeled the attack as terrorism on "Day One.")
"Friendly Libyans were saying almost immediately that the organized attackers (not the protesters) seemed to be mostly foreigners. By the 13th, people were beginning to be identified and rolled up," the source, who has been critical of the administration in the past, told Yahoo News. One early asset: Social media, where videos and photos of the attack gave intelligence officials early clues to what really happened.
"In this case, the intel has been spot-on from the beginning," the source said. American intelligence reached the conclusion that the assault on the consulate was terrorism "on Day One" and "the Brits, the French, Italians all said the same thing … within 48 hours." The source agreed to detail the American response to the tragedy on condition of anonymity.
The day after the attack, President Barack Obama used his first public remarks on the tragedy to declare that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." That contradicts Republican charges that the president has refused to label the attack as "terrorism."
The issue is not merely an inside-the-Beltway word game. A formal finding of terrorism enabled the U.S. government to respond with more military and intelligence assets than if the attack had been judged to be merely a criminal act.