By Samuel Burke, CNN
What really happened before and during the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11th?
The U.S. State Department has now made it clear that it was a terrorist attack, not a reaction to that anti-Islamic video that caused so much protest in the Muslim world.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the onslaught on the mission.
Wednesday, the U.S. Congress held a politically charged hearing in the heated environment of the upcoming presidential election.
During the hearing Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah said, “When I was in Libya, a good part of the day, never once did a person ever mention a video, never. And I'm fascinated to know and understand, from the President of the United States, from the Secretary of State, and from the ambassador to the United Nations, how they can justify that this video caused this attack. It was a terrorist attack. Let's be honest about it.”
A few days after the assault, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the assessment at that time was that it was a “spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo” – reaction to the YouTube video. A week later Obama reinforced that link. But just a few days later, the administration's story started to change. On September 28, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack, and possibly by al-Qaeda or affiliated groups. And finally, Tuesday, in a background briefing to reporters, the State Department disavowed any link at all to that video.
U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey left his post as the American ambassador to Iraq in June. Jeffrey is deeply familiar with security considerations at U.S. diplomatic sites in danger zones around the world.
Ambassador Jeffrey told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour the changing story on what happened in this type of event is a typical part of the investigative process.
“This happens, unfortunately, all too often. The initial reports we get are not completely accurate and people jump to conclusions in processing the paperwork. Over time, it becomes clearer.” Jeffrey said. “It's quite plausible, in fact, that the administration got the wrong story, not by deliberate intent, but by happenstance.”
While Jeffrey says he believes the hearings are “somewhat political,” he affirms that they are a step in the right direction to finding out the whole story.
“It wasn't just a terrorist attack. It was fire and maneuver under indirect fire from marauders by a live force of pretty well-trained military personnel, probably associated with al-Qaeda, but that is not yet clear.”
Jeffrey says it's very hard to defend any diplomatic facility against a military attack.
Rep. Chaffetz is part of the Republican majority, which has cut hundreds of millions of dollars of security funding for U.S. missions around the world.
Ambassador Jeffrey says while funding does play a role to some degree, he won’t point fingers.
“I will say that the Department of State has a very, very large budget. And our priority - in Iraq and elsewhere where I've served - is to ensure that those high-danger posts… got all the security that people thought was necessary. Clearly, we needed more security there or we need a decision on closing the post.”
The issue overshadowing the Benghazi debate is the possible rise of al-Qaeda in northern Africa. Jeffrey says he’s concerned; and points out the difficulty of tracking al-Qaeda’s goals, because each group of the network pursues a different agenda.
“In Iraq, they're feeding off of tension between the Sunni and the Shia population as they did back in 2007. In North Africa, we have very weak states who cannot cope with them. But the rise so far, take Iraq or even Libya, is not significant compared to the levels of violence before. But we need to watch this very closely.”
CNN’s Claire Calzonetti produced this piece for television.