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Originally published September 20, 2012 at 8:56 PM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 6:43 AM

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Congress briefed as U.S. opens new inquiry on Libya attack

The Obama administration has labeled the Benghazi violence a terrorist attack.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — The State Department is opening a new inquiry into the attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton announced the inquiry the same day she and senior defense, intelligence and law-enforcement officials briefed Congress about what the Obama administration has learned about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi during the past week.

The classified presentations to both houses of Congress included a look at U.S. intelligence assessments ahead of the Sept. 11 attack in Libya and the FBI's efforts to identify suspects.

It still is not clear exactly when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens died, and other details are hazy. No cause of death was given for the four Americans.

A senior U.S. official said earlier in the day that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was expected to tell members of Congress that he doesn't think the attack in Benghazi was a long-planned operation, a senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration has labeled the Benghazi incident a terrorist attack. Asked if the attack was carried out by al-Qaida, President Obama said, "We don't know yet."

Speaking Thursday at a candidate forum on Spanish-language network Univision, Obama said groups affiliated with al-Qaida "have not gone away" and remain dangerous.

More than a week after the lethal attack, conflicting accounts continue to emerge in Washington and Benghazi about whether the assault was spontaneous or premeditated. The Obama administration insists that, so far, evidence indicates local extremists hijacked a peaceful demonstration, as has been suggested in Benghazi.

A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, one of the extremist groups blamed for the assault, acknowledged that members of the group were among many militia members who attended the protest over an anti-Muslim video, but said the attack was carried out by others who arrived at the consulate and began to disperse the crowd.

"It's like a culture here," said the spokesman, Hany Mansouri. "You carry your weapons. Everyone has Kalashnikovs, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small guns, at least."

But a former member of Libya's Transitional National Council (TNC) with knowledge of the investigation said there are signs the assault was planned, the same position taken by the Libyan government.

The former TNC member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to a successful mortar strike on a safe house outside the consulate as evidence of advance planning. He said the attackers needed experience using mortars and knowledge of the location of the building.

The inquiry announced by Clinton will be carried out by an independent four-member panel chaired by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering. The panel, required by law, will look at whether security procedures were adequate at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and make recommendations to the secretary of state. Pickering was once the boss of Stevens, who was killed in the Benghazi attack last week, along with another diplomat and two security personnel.

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