WASHINGTON - The Obama administration was caught by surprise by the ferocity of the Sept. 11 attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. Now it is bracing for another potential eruption of violent demonstrations in parts of the Muslim world after today's weekly prayers - traditionally a time of protest in the Middle East and North Africa.
Angry demonstrations over an anti-Islam video already have occurred in Egypt and Yemen, and officials theorize that well-armed Libyan extremists hijacked a similar protest in Benghazi, where several Libyan security guards also were killed. The U.S. put all of its diplomatic missions overseas on high alert, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an explicit denunciation of the video as the administration sought to pre-empt further turmoil at its embassies and consulates.
"The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," she said before a meeting with the foreign minister of Morocco at the State Department. "We absolutely reject its content and message."
Egyptian protesters throw stones next to a burning truck during clashes near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Thursday.
"To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible," Clinton said. "It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage."
U.S. officials said they suspect that the attack at the Benghazi consulate, which had also been the target of an unsuccessful attack in June, may have been only tangentially related to the film.
They also stressed there had been no advance warning or intelligence to suggest a threat in Libya that would warrant boosting security, even on the 11th anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"As we did with all of our missions overseas, in advance of the September 11 anniversary and as we do every year, we did evaluate the threat stream and we determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The intelligence leading up to the attacks will be examined to "see if there was any way of forecasting this violence," as in any violent incident, House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Thursday. But he said the focus now "has to be on finding out who is responsible and bringing them to justice."
As of Thursday morning, there was no intelligence indicating that what happened in Benghazi was planned, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the investigation into the attack. Intelligence officials said they believe it's more likely that the attack was "opportunistic or spontaneous," with militants taking advantage of the demonstration to launch the assault.