WASHINGTON -- The State Department now says it never believed the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a film protest gone awry, giving congressional Republicans new fodder for criticizing the Obama administration's initial accounts of the assault.
The State Department's extraordinary break with other administration offices came in a department briefing Tuesday, where officials said "others" in the executive branch concluded initially that the protest was based, like others in the Middle East, on a film that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad.
That was never the department's conclusion, a senior official told reporters.
The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing Wednesday on diplomatic security in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The attack as become a political football in the final weeks before the election.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has accused the State Department of turning aside pleas from its diplomats in Libya to increase security in the months and weeks before the attack in Benghazi. One scheduled witness Wednesday, Eric Nordstrom, is the former chief security officer for U.S. diplomats in Libya who told the committee his pleas for more security were ignored.
Briefing reporters Tuesday ahead of the hearing, department officials were asked about the administration's initial - and since retracted - explanation linking the violence to protests over an American-made anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet. One official responded, without specifying, that it was a question for others to answer.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, and provided no evidence that might suggest a case of spontaneous violence or angry protests that went too far.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican lawmakers have increasingly sharpened their criticism of the administration's initial explanation of the attack. They said they never accepted the original explanation.
It was a top administration diplomatic official, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who gave a series of interviews five days after the attack that wrongly described the attack as spontaneous.