Miami: President Barack Obama said Thursday that extremists used an anti-Islam video as an excuse to assault U.S. interests overseas, including an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The president's comments came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton faced questions from members of the House and Senate about the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi in a series of closed-door classified briefings on Capitol Hill.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misreading the assault as the outgrowth of widespread demonstrations in the Middle East over the video. They insisted it was a terrorist attack, a term White House spokesman Jay Carney used on Thursday. Obama did not use the phrase.
"What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests," the president said at a candidate forum on the Spanish-language network Univision.
Asked if that meant al-Qaida, Obama said, "We don't know yet."
"We will focus narrowly and forcefully on groups like al-Qaida, the ones that carried out the 9/11 attacks. Those forces have not gone away," the president said.
Clinton also announced that, in line with federal law, she will appoint an independent panel to look at circumstances of the attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and there other employees. The so-called Accountability Review Board will be chaired by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, she said.
Democrats and Republicans emerging from the briefings provided some details about what the administration is still piecing together — who was responsible, how much of it was planned and what was the security.
Joining Clinton at the back-to-back briefings were Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said it was "clearly a terrorist attack," but mortars weren't used until six, seven hours into the fight.
"So it seemed like an armed gang that seized an opportunity," Smith said.
Both Smith and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersburger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said there was no evidence to suggest that the local Libyans at the consulate colluded with the attackers.
Published reports suggested that Sufyan bin Qumu, a former detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was transferred to Libya in 2007, was involved. Lawmakers asked about Qumu at the briefing.
"But not directly related to the attack, but as someone who's in that region," Smith said. "They're attempting to establish whether or not he was connected to the people who made the attack. He's certainly a person of interest."
Investigators have found no evidence or intelligence to suggest Qumu was at the conflict, leading it or organizing it, according to a U.S. official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
Senate Republicans expressed frustration with the information provided at the sessions and disputed the administration's assessment.
"There's increasing amount of evidence that this was a coordinated attack by terrorists," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "The movie wasn't the catalyst for this, the catalyst was radical Islamic extremists that wanted to attack the United States and saw an opportunity to do it in Benghazi."
One of the harshest critics of the administration, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, scoffed at the administration's argument that the video set off the assault.
"I'm stunned that they thought this was some kind of spontaneous demonstration," McCain told reporters.
In testimony Wednesday, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called the incident a "terrorist attack."
Carney echoed that point on Thursday.
"It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials," he said.