The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the a day after the Sept. 11 attacks… (Ibrahim Alaguri / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies are assembling dossiers on suspects in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in eastern Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, a first step toward fulfilling President Obama's vow to bring the killers to justice, U.S. officials said.
The Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command and intelligence agencies "are starting to look at people who might have been involved and starting to tee up options," a U.S. official said.
The so-called target packages summarize the intelligence that links individuals to the Sept. 11 armed attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission and annex in Benghazi, two Defense officials said.
Although the United States is flying surveillance drones over eastern Libya, no decision has been made to launch drone missile strikes or take other military action against any of the individuals, said the officials, who would not be quoted by name speaking about sensitive intelligence matters.
"We don't have the full picture yet on precisely who was involved, and so a complete nominating list [of targets] is not possible to put together," the U.S. official said.
It remains unclear how much direct control Al Qaeda's local affiliate in Libya had in the attack, the official said.
Libya's fledgling government is opposed to a U.S. airstrike or military raid, complicating any White House decision, the official said.
The Obama administration could decide to share intelligence with the government in Tripoli and help it take action against those responsible for the attacks. Experts say Libyan security forces could not fulfill that role without U.S. assistance.
"There could be a decision at some point to share" intelligence, the official said.
A U.S. special operations raid, like the Navy SEAL assault that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011, is highly unlikely before the Nov. 6 election, officials said.
Target packages include details of a suspect's location, movements, family and associates. In the counter-terrorism context, target packages are typically put together with help from the CIA, and they generally are used to kill or capture a suspect, officials said.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a former Special Operations planner, said U.S. agencies have been focused on Libya since the armed uprising that overthrew and killed Moammar Kadafi last year.
"Now the hard part is, you may have a list of 50 potential bad guys," said Nelson, who directs the homeland security and counter-terrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "Who of the 50 do I really think is behind this, and then, what do I want to do about them?"
Any use of U.S. military force in Libya could cause a strong anti-U.S. backlash, said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the liberal New America Foundation who spent six months in Libya last year.
"They really like us now in Libya," he said, citing the pro-American crowds that overran the headquarters of Ansar al Sharia, a militia whose members are believed to have been involved in the Benghazi attacks.
"If the U.S. can do something secretly, that's one thing," Barfi said. "But if you put U.S. troops on the ground or start engaging in drone strikes, it will create a popular backlash that will erode all the goodwill created in the last six months."
The attack killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, an embassy information specialist and two former Navy SEALs. An FBI team sent to investigate the attacks has yet to reach Benghazi because U.S. and Libyan officials believe the city is too dangerous for them to operate.
The planning comes as the Obama administration finds itself under increasing criticism from Republicans for its handling of the Libya attack and its aftermath.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a letter Tuesday detailing what he said were security incidents that preceded the attack, asking whether the State Department had been aware of them, whether requests had been made by for additional protection and what steps were taken.
In a reply, Clinton promised to answer the questions "as expeditiously as possible."
After first suggesting that the attack followed a spontaneous protest of an anti-Islamic video, U.S. officials now say it was a terrorist attack carried out by local extremists who were in touch with members of Al Qaeda.