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Olsen: I was not reprimanded for calling Benghazi a terrorist attack

When Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) testified on Sept. 19 that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a "terrorist attack," his comments were reported as big news. "I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Olsen ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

When Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) testified on Sept. 19 that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a "terrorist attack," his comments were reported as big news.

"I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Olsen testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in response to questioning from Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) about the attack that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

As for who was responsible, Olsen said it appeared there were attackers from a number of different militant groups that operate in and around Benghazi, and said there were already suggestions of al Qaeda involvement.

When Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) testified on Sept. 19 that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a "terrorist attack," his comments were reported as big news.

"I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Olsen testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in response to questioning from Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) about the attack that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

As for who was responsible, Olsen said it appeared there were attackers from a number of different militant groups that operate in and around Benghazi, and said there were already suggestions of al Qaeda involvement.

"We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda’s affiliates; in particular, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," he said.

Even though President Barack Obama had called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" at least twice in the days after, Olsen’s Sept. 19 comment seemed to be of a different tone and emphasis than those of other senior administration officials who were commenting on the attacks around that time.

For example, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said Sept. 16 that based on the latest information available, the attack appeared to be a "spontaneous" reaction to an anti-Islam video, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Sept. 18 that "based on what we know now and knew at the time, we have no evidence of a preplanned or premeditated attack." Officials have since pointed out those statements are not necessarily incompatible with the idea it was a terrorist attack.

Fox News reported Wednesday that Olsen was "reprimanded" and told to "tone it down" after his testimony, attributing that information to "congressional sources." Today, in a statement emailed to The Cable, Olsen said that’s simply not true.

"These claims are completely false. My comments were entirely consistent with the intelligence available at the time. I received nothing but positive feedback following my testimony," Olsen said. "To suggest that something as important as open testimony regarding the circumstances in which four Americans loss their lives, was not fully coordinated with the Executive Branch and other government agencies, is nonsense."

The White House also shared with The Cable excerpts of private communications between Olsen and two senior officials, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, showing that they praised Olsen for his performance the evening after his testimony.

On Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 at 7:43 p.m., McDonough emailed Olsen and wrote, "I think you did an outstanding job. Informative answers that are fully consistent with the reporting…very well done."

On the same day at 7:46 p.m., Brennan wrote to Olsen, "you did an excellent job…You did a much better job than ever could have been done by the first guy who sat in your chair" (a reference to Brennan).

The authenticity of the excerpts was confirmed by two White House officials and two officials at the NCTC.

Asked for comment, National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor offered praise for the intelligence community and its handling of the Benghazi issue.

"Over the last 11 years the tireless work of our intelligence community has foiled countless plots against the homeland, our people and our interests. The intelligence community has been just as dedicated and tireless on Libya, where it has continually pursued all leads and provided in a timely way the best possible intelligence to support policymakers throughout the U.S. government," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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