White House calls Libya assault "terrorist attack"

White House press secretary Jay Carney pauses as he speaks during his daily news briefing at the White House Sept. 19, 2012, in Washington.
AP Photo

(CBS News) The White House called last week's deadly assault on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, "a terrorist attack" Thursday, but didn't clarify whether the Obama administration thought the attack was planned in advance.

"It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One Thursday. "Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials. So, again, that's self evident."

The White House's latest comments on the attack come as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formed an "accountability review board" to investigate the brutal assault that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Clinton named former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering to chair the panel, the Reuters news agency reports.

The new investigation comes amid calls from Capitol Hill for more information on the attack, and complaints that the Obama administration has not been forthright.

Carney didn't clarify whether the Obama administration thought the attack was planned in advance, Reuters reports. A top U.S. counterterrorism official reportedly told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the assault was "opportunistic" but also a "terrorist attack."

Earlier Thursday, CBS News reported that witnesses of the attack said that the alleged anti-American protest that U.S. officials had said morphed into the assault never actually took place, adding to the widening rift between U.S. and Libyan accounts on the attack.

On CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday, Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf said that the execution of the attack showed it was planned far in advance. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on the same program that the attack stemmed from "spontaneous protests."

On Wednesday, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told senators that the United States doesn't have specific intelligence that the attack was planned in advance, Reuters reports.

"The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicate that this was an opportunistic attack" on the consulate, Olsen said, according to Reuters. "The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours."

U.S. officials had said since the immediate aftermath of the attack that it originally started as an anti-American protest against an amateurish online video made in the U.S. that insults the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

"At this point, what I would say is that a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area," Olsen said, according to Reuters. "As well, 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."

One man the FBI and intelligence agencies are looking at as a possible suspect in the assault is a former prisoner at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller reports.

(Watch at left)

Sufyan bin Qumu was released from Guantanamo in 2007 to the Libyan regime headed by Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi jailed him, but he was then set free on a promise to renounce violence. When the Arab Spring uprising began in Libya, Qumu became part of the rebel movement which eventually toppled Qaddafi.

"He's a great suspect on paper," Miller said. "There is some intel about him but it's way too early to verify these reports we've seen that he is the prime suspect or the prime mover. Way too early."

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports FBI investigators in Libya haven't yet gone to the destroyed consulate, and Miller cautions it's still too soon to make any firm determinations about the attack.

"Whether it was pre-planned or not is tough because in this environment, in Libya," says Miller. "In a normal place when people show up with weapons and cars and an effective assault, you say that requires pre-operational planning. Libya's a place that went through 13 months of this. There's all kinds of weapons and militias with cars and weapons, so it's the one kind of place this could happen spontaneously."