WASHINGTON — The White House, after more than a week in which it has come under fire from Republicans, is now calling last week’s assault on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a ‘‘terrorist attack.’’
‘‘It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,’’ the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters traveling on Air Force One on Thursday. ‘‘Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials.’’
Also Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the creation of a panel to investigate the attack. The panel, called an Accountability Review Board, will be led by Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat and former undersecretary of state. The board is authorized by a 1986 law intended to strengthen security at US diplomatic missions.
The assault, which actually occurred at the US consulate, resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya. US officials have blamed militants who rushed to take advantage of anger over a video made in the United States that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.
Obama administration officials initially said the attack had not been planned in advance. But, with the election less than two months away, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.
White House officials, until now, have avoided calling the attack a terrorist attack, but in congressional testimony Wednesday, Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, described it that way. Neither official offered any additional information on the assault.
On Tuesday, Clinton said there had been no intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent. She said that FBI investigators had arrived in Tripoli and that the United States, with the Libyan authorities, would find those responsible. She did not discuss any potential ties to al-Qaida but blamed extremists opposed to the democratic changes in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for the violence and protests around the region generally.
Asked if he drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years ago, Carney said: ‘‘The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do.’’