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Intelligence officials: We knew attack in Benghazi was terrorist act from beginning

Top intelligence officials told NBC News Monday night that they have known the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate was a terrorist act from the beginning.

White House and intelligence officials meanwhile are denying charges by Republicans that there was an attempt to whitewash the origins of the Benghazi attack to protect the president politically. In the months since the attack, Republican lawmakers have focused on comments by Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said Benghazi was “initially a spontaneous reaction” to demonstrations in Cairo against a  “hateful and offensive video.”

The attack in the Libyan city resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Officials said that although there was no question that the attack was terrorism, they did not know whether they were spontaneous or planned long in advance. They also did not have the suspects’ identities.

That’s why, they said, they kept their unclassified talking points for Rice vague to avoid compromising future legal proceedings. 

On Sept. 16, Rice said on Meet the Press that the violence sweeping the Islamic world at the time was “a spontaneous reaction to a video, and it’s not dissimilar but, perhaps, on a slightly larger scale than what we have seen in the past with 'The Satanic Verses' with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.”

She then elaborated on the specific attack on the US consulate in Libya: “Putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.”

Rice added, “Obviously, that’s our best judgment now.  We’ll await the results of the investigation.“

On Sept. 20, nine days after the attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney told a gaggle of reporters on Air Force One that the attack was “terrorism.”

Previously, the White House had used the term “extremists” to describe those who had breached the consulate grounds. In the Rose Garden on the day after the attack, President Obama said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. ... We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."

Republicans have since pounced on Rice’s comments, saying that she had misled the public. Their outrage sparked calls for an investigation into whether politics played a role.

A senior intelligence official told NBC News that members of the intelligence community changed the reference from al-Qaida to “extremists” – not anyone from the White House who had a political agenda.

Officials confirm that then-CIA Director David Petraeus testified in a closed session immediately after the attack that it was a terrorist assault, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday on Meet the Press.

Petraeus repeated that testimony in closed sessions on Friday. Congress has held several hearings, public and closed, into what happened in Benghazi.

So why were those unclassified talking points created in the first place?

Officials say they were produced in response to requests from the House Select Committee on Intelligence for language that could be used in media interviews. 

The main purpose was to provide talking points sensitive to the fact that there could be legal proceedings in the future, the senior official said. Initial intelligence was tenuous, and affiliations were unclear.

Investigators also worried the investigation could be compromised if they provided too much information.