WASHINGTON -- The White House is now describing the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi as a “terrorist attack,” a shift in emphasis after days of describing the lethal assault as a spontaneous eruption of anger over an anti-Islamic film made in California.
“It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday as President Obama traveled to Florida for a campaign event. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials."
Carney said investigators have “indications of possible involvement” of Al Qaeda in the Magreb, but he said there is no evidence “at this point to suggest that this is a significantly pre-planned attack.”
White House officials have not previously described the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a terrorist act. The administration, and Obama’s reelection campaign, have been sensitive to allegations that the attack involved a security lapse, or a broader policy failure, in the middle of a presidential race.
When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the incident an “an act of terror” last weekend, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign suggested the senator was being political.
Carney’s comments echoed testimony from National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, who on Wednesday told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that those involved in the attack were either local militants or foreigners with possible connections to Al Qaeda.
"I would say they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,” he said of the four Americans.
The White House initially blamed the video, which ridiculed the prophet Muhammad, for anti-American protests and violence that began in Cairo and spread to 20 countries last week.
Carney has gradually calibrated his remarks to say administration officials were waiting on the results of an FBI investigation and that no possible cause had been ruled out.
On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the attack apparently began as a “spontaneous reaction” to the news of the Cairo protest.
But later “there were extremist elements that joined and escalated the violence. Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremist or Al Qaeda itself, I think, is one of the things we'll have to determine,” Rice said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Photo: Libyan President Mohammed Megarif speaks Thursday during a memorial service in Tripoli, Libya, for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three consulate staff killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Credit: Abdel Magid al-Fergany / Associated Press