Members of Congress as well as the former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign are raising new issues about the Benghazi attack and how it was reported to the public. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
Correction: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect date for the cable sent to the State Department by U.S. Embassy personnel in Libya.
House Republicans stepped up criticism of President Barack Obama on Friday over the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S mission in Benghazi, Libya, releasing 166 pages of unclassified documents and photos that they said show administration officials repeatedly rejected “requests for increased security despite escalating violence … (and) systematically decreased existing security to dangerous and ineffective levels.”
The release of the documents, which came just days before Obama and Republican Mitt Romney discuss U.S. foreign policy in their last debate before the Nov. 6 presidential election, added to the political furor over the administration’s actions preceding the late-night attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which claimed the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Many of the documents released by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz had previously been made public, but others provided new evidence of growing concern about the security situation in Benghazi, and Libya in general.
One, a June 25 memo from Stevens, referred to incidents in Benghazi in which local elements attacked foreigners and specifically mentioned signs of growing al-Qaida sympathies in the city.
“(A) national security official shared his private opinion that the attacks were the work of extremists who are opposed to western influence in Libya,” Stevens wrote. “A number of local contacts agreed, noting that Islamic extremism appears to be on the rise in eastern Libya and the al-Qaida flag has been spotted several times flying over government buildings and training facilities in Derna (a city east of Benghazi). Other contacts disagree however suggesting that the attacks could be the work of pro-Gadhafi loyalists or individuals who have been politically and financially marginalized by the (Transitional National Council)."
Another document, a cable dated Aug. 2 and sent to the State Department by U.S. Embassy personnel in Tripoli, indicated that staff had growing concerns over security provided by Libyan militias.
“Host nation security support is lacking and cannot be depended on to provide a safe and secure environment for the diplomatic mission,” it said in part.
In a letter to Obama, Issa, R-Calif., and Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanded the president fully answer questions about the administration’s response to the concerns.
"The American people deserve nothing less than a full explanation from this administration about these events, including why the repeated warnings about a worsening security situation appear to have been ignored by this administration,” it said. “Americans also deserve a complete explanation about your administration's decision to accelerate a normalized presence in Libya at what now appears to be at the cost of endangering American lives.”
The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., issued a statement in which he accused Issa and Chaffetz of attempting to use the tragedy to score political points.
Issa's letter "completely ignores sworn testimony provided to the committee, recklessly omits contradictory information from the very same documents it quotes, irresponsibly promotes inaccurate information, and makes numerous allegations with no evidence to substantiate them," he wrote.
Ben Curtis / AP file
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack on the U.S. consulate Benghazi, LIbya.
Separately, a senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said Friday that investigators still have not uncovered any evidence that the attack was preplanned.
"No one is ruling out the idea that some of the attackers may have aspired to attack the U.S. in Benghazi," the official said. "However, right now, there isn't any intelligence that the attackers preplanned their assault days or weeks in advance. The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Of course, other factors may also have motivated participation in the attack."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner also cautioned that investigators are still piecing together events that led to the attack.
"An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi,” he said. “Once we have the board's comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters."
The release of the documents came after the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said they would continue to press the administration to explain why U.S. spy agencies and government spokesmen initially played down suspected al-Qaida links to the consulate attack.
Immediately after the Benghazi attack, U.S. spy agencies produced conflicting reports on who was behind them, U.S. officials said. Most said extremists with possible al-Qaida ties were involved. But a few reports, which the Obama administration emphasized in public statements, said the attacks could have been spontaneous protests against a U.S.-made anti-Muslim video.
Ultimately, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the top U.S. intelligence authority, declared that the events were a "deliberate and organized terrorist attack" carried out by "extremists" affiliated with or sympathetic to al-Qaida.
Several prominent Republicans are accusing the White House of either covering up, or bungling initial reports about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss the investigation.
On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said both intelligence and security problems may have played a role in the attack.
"There's no question but that it was a terrorist attack, there is no question but that the security was inadequate and I think that there is no question that we need to work on our intelligence," Feinstein told KCBS-TV.
When asked why the U.S. government initially played down the role of Islamic militants, she said: "I think what happened was the director of intelligence, who is a very good individual, put out some speaking points on the initial intelligence assessment. I think that was possibly a mistake."
But the committee's Republican vice chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, questioned whether administration officials deliberately omitted possible references to al-Qaida involvement in talking points about the Benghazi attacks.
"Talking points distributed by the administration are nearly identical to intelligence assessments within hours of the attack, except in one important way: the intelligence judgment that the attackers had ties to al-Qaida was excluded from the public points," Chambliss said in a statement on Friday.
"The administration omitted the known links to al-Qaida at almost every opportunity ... Whether this was an intentional effort by the administration to downplay the role of terrorist groups, especially al-Qaida, is one of the many issues the Senate Intelligence Committee must examine," he said.
NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell and NBC News producers Catherine Chomiak, Rich Gardella and Libby Leist and Reuters news service contributed to this report.
More world stories from NBC News:
- Self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Mohammed airs his views at Gitmo hearing
- British government to recruit teens as next generation of spies
- Doctors: Girl shot by Taliban able to stand, communicate
- U.S. nonprofit 'names and shames' businesses to put bite into Iran sanctions
- Van full of bodies stolen during drivers' break in Germany
- Revolt of the underclass in Syria
- Fidel Castro statement read at Havana event amid rumors about his health
- Rights group blasts Rwanda winning seat on UN Security Council
- 'Spy of the West': Al-Qaida, Taliban struggle to justify attack on Pakistani teen
- UK computer hacker wins 10 year fight against extradition to US