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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee are questioning why U.S. spy agencies and government spokesmen initially played down suspected al Qaeda links to the September 11 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Immediately after the Benghazi attacks, spy agencies produced conflicting reports on who was behind them, U.S. officials said. Most said extremists with possible al Qaeda ties were involved. But a few reports, which the Obama administration emphasized in public statements, said the attacks could have been spontaneous protests against a U.S.-made anti-Muslim video.
Ultimately, the office of Director of National Intelligence, the top U.S. intelligence authority, declared that the events were a "deliberate and organized terrorist attack" carried out by "extremists" affiliated with or sympathetic to al Qaeda.
On Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the intelligence committee, said both intelligence and security problems may have played a role in the attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
"There's no question but that it was a terrorist attack, there is no question but that the security was inadequate and I think that there is no question that we need to work on our intelligence," Feinstein told KCBS-TV.
When asked why the U.S. government initially played down the role of Islamic militants, she said: "I think what happened was the director of intelligence, who is a very good individual, put out some speaking points on the initial intelligence assessment. I think that was possibly a mistake."
The committee's Republican vice chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, questioned whether administration officials deliberately omitted possible references to al Qaeda involvement in talking points about the Benghazi attacks.
"Talking points distributed by the administration are nearly identical to intelligence assessments within hours of the attack, except in one important way: the intelligence judgment that the attackers had ties to al-Qa'ida was excluded from the public points," Chambliss said in a statement on Friday.
"The administration omitted the known links to al-Qa'ida at almost every opportunity ... Whether this was an intentional effort by the administration to downplay the role of terrorist groups, especially al-Qa'ida, is one of the many issues the Senate Intelligence Committee must examine," Chambliss said.
The Benghazi attacks followed protests earlier that day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that had erupted over a short Internet video lampooning the Prophet Mohammad.
The CIA summarized the intelligence for public consumption in a September 15 document circulated to U.S. policymakers and members of Congress.
The language in the public summary was virtually identical to language in a classified intelligence report circulated on September 12, according to multiple U.S. government sources familiar with the matter. The secret document, however, reported that the extremists in question had possible links to "al Qaeda" - a point the unclassified document omitted.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said both assessments were prepared by the intelligence community and referred questions to them.
Even though they had access to a stream of classified reports alleging possible al Qaeda links, administration officials, most notably Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, played up the analysis that the attack may have been spontaneous, played down the role of extremists, and avoided altogether mentioning a possible al Qaeda connection.
Some witnesses to the Benghazi violence who spoke to journalists say the attacks were prompted by the U.S.-made video and the attackers included Islamic extremists.
Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Doina Chiacu