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Benghazi attack was terrorist action, says top intel official

Senate homeland security hearing

The Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. government workers, was an act of terrorism, not a spontaneous action, a top U.S. intelligence official told Senate homeland security leaders.

At the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s annual hearing on Sept. 19 to examine potential threats to the homeland, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said the attack was an act of terrorism and not a spontaneous attack, as White House officials had earlier maintained.

Olsen said the intelligence community was assessing information about the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, including questions about who was involved and whether it was planned in advance.  Olsen indicated that the intelligence community was looking into the possibility that Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, played a role.

The FBI is currently investigating the violence at the Benghazi compound.

At the hearing, Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said the attack shows Al Qaeda, although weakened, still posed a potent threat to U.S. facilities.

On Sept. 14, Collins had asked State Department deputy inspector general Harold Geisel to investigate the incident and report back with recommendations to improve security at other diplomatic posts around the world, focusing on the State Department’s smaller posts and non-permanent facilities in post-conflict nations like Libya.

Earlier in the week, on Sept. 17, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) urged caution about drawing conclusions before the investigation is completed, but noted Al Qaeda’s strong presence in the area. “The FBI is over there, but it’s a hard area for investigation on the ground right now. Libya itself is confusing, but the Benghazi area is one of the most confusing of all,” said King on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “It’s an al Qaeda stronghold out there.”

Cyber attacks are another lurking menace to U.S. interests, according to intelligence officials testifying at the hearing.

Collins said inaction by the U.S. government not only played a role in the Benghazi attack, but also poses a threat to the nation’s Cyber security.

 “Whatever the plots hatched by our enemies, I am also concerned about vulnerabilities that stem from our own the government’s actions or failure to act.  I would note the lack of security in Benghazi, the grave, self-inflicted wounds from intelligence leaks, and the failure to enact a Cyber security bill,” she said. 

Perkins said the U.S. faces “increasingly complex threats” to its Cyber security, including from nation-states, organized crime groups, and hackers.  He noted that these threats pose “a significant risk to our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

Lieberman and Collins emphasized the need for continuing to work to pass comprehensive Cyber security legislation. Lieberman urged the White House to issue an Executive Order on Cyber security given congressional gridlock; witnesses acknowledged that an executive order was being developed but urged the Senate to continue working towards passage of comprehensive Cyber security legislation.

Efforts in Congress to approve comprehensive Cyber security legislation have been stymied over privacy issues, as well as rules for private industry to comply.