Transcript: Q&A with NCTC Director Matthew Olsen at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs

Edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s Q&A with National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on Sept. 19, 2012:

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Let me focus in on the recent wave of protests…in a large part of the Muslim world but also the attacks in Benghazi. Director Olsen, let me begin with you and see if you can help us separate this out. It certainly seems to me that there were a series of protests that were set off as a result of this film and I’ll get back to that. But that what happened in Benghazi looked like a terrorist attack. The NCTC uses the definition of terrorism, which I think is a good one, as ‘politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.’ So let me begin by asking you whether you would say that Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans died as a result of a terrorist attack?”

NCTC Director Matthew Olsen:

“Certainly on that particular question I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Right. And do we have reason to believe at this point that that terrorist attack was sort of pre-planned for Sept. 11 or did the terrorists who were obviously planning it – ’cause it certainly seemed to be a coordinated terrorist attack – just seized the moment of the demonstrations or protests against the film to carry out a terrorist attack?”

NCTC Director Matthew Olsen:

“A more complicated question and one that, Mr. Chairman, we are spending a great deal of time looking at even as we speak. Obviously the investigation here is ongoing and facts are being developed continually.

“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy.

“The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours. I said our embassy – our diplomatic post in Benghazi. It evolved and escalated over several hours.

“It appears that individuals who are certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the event unfolded that evening into the morning hours of Sept. 12.

“We do know that a number of militants in the area, as I mentioned, are well-armed and maintained those arms.

“What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack.

“Again, we’re still developing facts and still looking for any indications of substantial advanced planning. We just haven’t seen that at this point.

“So I think that’s the most I would say at this point. I do want to emphasize that there is a classified briefing for all of Congress will take place tomorrow.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Great. We’ll be there. Let me come back to what you said that there was evidence or intelligence that, as you indicated broadly a moment ago, that in Eastern Libya in the Benghazi area there were a number of militant or violent Islamist extremist groups. Do we have any idea at this point who was responsible among those groups for the attack on the consulate?”

NCTC Director Matthew Olsen:

“This is the most important question that we’re considering. We are focused on who was responsible for this attack.

“At this point, what I would say is that a number of different elements appeared to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in Eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area. 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.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Right. So that question has not been determined yet, whether it was a Libyan group or a group associated with Al Qaeda influenced from abroad.”

NCTC Director Matthew Olsen:

“That’s right and I would add that the picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it’s not necessarily an either or proposition. Again, as you know, the FBI is leading the investigation and that’s ongoing.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Yeah. I want to go to you now, Director Perkins, and ask you about that. What is the status of the FBI investigation to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya?”

FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin Perkins:

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. And as Director Olsen noted, we have an open investigation at this time. We have significant number of FBI agents, analysts, and various support employees assigned to this matter. We are conducting interviews, gathering evidence, and trying to sort out the facts – working with our partners – both from a criminal standpoint as well as in the intelligence community to try to determine exactly what took place on the ground that evening.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Secretary Napolitano, let me go to you, and Mr. Perkins if you want to add. I know that last Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released a bulletin indicating that this film was the apparent catalyst for these protests and that fact could increase the violence here in the United States and could motivate homegrown violent extremists certainly with their recruitment efforts and perhaps actions. I wonder if in this setting you could comment on the state of your concern about that and what steps the DHS and the FBI are taking along with other government agencies to proactively address the potentially higher risk of homegrown terrorist acts as a result of the film?”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano:

“Right now, Mr. Chairman, we have no intelligence of impending violent attacks within the United States. There is open source some planned demonstrations in, I believe, Los Angeles and Houston among other places. Those are posted on the web. But we have no indication of anything that is violent in nature.

“Nonetheless, immediately after the attack in Benghazi, we began outreach to a number of groups within the country, including faith-based groups and others who could be the target of a violent attack and provided them with guidance on things they can do to make sure they are as safe as possible. So we continue that outreach; we continue working with our local partners in terms of what they’re seeing on the ground and then monitoring the open source media.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman:

“Okay. Thank you. Let me ask you finally what we as a government can do to counter-act the impact of this film? I mean, we’re a country of almost 310 million now. This film – hateful, really – was done by a handful of people. And yet, American embassies, consulates not only are subject to protests, which is very much in the American spirit of civil protest and the right of free speech, but going beyond that to destruction of property and at its worst the terrorist attack on Benghazi that kills 4 people. And one other case, I believe, in Yemen, the demonstrators were armed. And of course, in some cases, including Tunisia, the local police and security forces actually ended up having to fire at crowds to stop them from doing further damage.

“I know this is very sensitive, but this gets back to – it’s very sensitive. But to – we have to ask our friends in the Muslim world and we ourselves have to be willing to say, ‘This film doesn’t represent us, and therefore it is simply unacceptable – even if you’re offended by the film, which we understand – to do more than protest, to begin to act violently.’ No more would it be acceptable in this country if some group seized on the statement of a fringe religious leader or a political leader in some foreign country that attacked America or that attacked Christians or that attacked Jews and as a result some group in America started to not just protest but to attack the embassy of the country in which that happened to happen. In other words, I think this behavior just – we have to blow the whistle on this behavior. Fortunately, we’ve had some help from our allies in countries like Libya in the government and Tunisia, and I think we have to be forthright in doing that ourselves.

“So with apologies for the length of the question and the opportunity I took to get a little bit off my chest, I wonder if you could tell us or any of the others on the panel what our government is trying to do now to challenge people in the Muslim world to confront the reality that this was – this is not a representative – this film is not a representative of America or the American government?”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano:

“Mr. Chairman, the film is absolutely not representative of America or the American government. It is deplorable.

“The issue you raise is a difficult one. We are a country where people have rights, and one of the rights they have is to have free speech and that could include things we find deplorable as well as other things.

“So we also recognize in the right – that there’s a right to assembly, a right to petition the government. So we recognize the right to have a peaceful demonstration against deplorable speech.

“What we need to keep communicating is as deplorable as we find that film to be, it is not – and never will be – an excuse for violence and for the senseless killing we saw in Benghazi and in other places. And we need that voice to come loud and clear not just from Washington but from the country as a whole internationally. And it needs to come from people of all faiths.”

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