(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - Federal authorities have identified a southern California man once convicted of financial crimes as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Mideast, a U.S. law enforcement official said Thursday.
Attorney General Eric Holder said that Justice Department officials had opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other diplomats killed during an attack on the American mission in Benghazi. It was not immediately clear whether authorities were focusing on the California filmmaker as part of that probe.
A federal law enforcement official said Thursday that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was the man behind "Innocence of Muslims," a film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protests earlier in the week in Egypt and Libya and now in Yemen. U.S. authorities are investigating whether the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya came during a terrorist attack.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a figure who initially claimed to be the writer and director of the film. But Bacile quickly turned out to a false identity.
A Christian activist involved in the film project, Steve Klein, told CBS News that Bacile was a pseudonym, and he told The Associated Press that Bacile was Christian. Klein had told the AP on Tuesday that the filmmaker was an Israeli Jew who was concerned for family members who live in Egypt.
Klein said he didn't know the real name of the man he called "Sam," who came to him for advice on First Amendment issues.
Klein said the film's financial backers are an anonymous group of Christians, Jews and Muslims with ties to the Middle East, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports. The film itself is amateurish, shot outside Los Angeles on a very low budget. Several actors told CBS News they only saw their scenes. They were horrified and frightened by the end result.
"I pray now for the family that lost, you know, that lost their loved ones, and I'm praying for the madness to stop," said Cindy, and actor who spoke to CBS News on the condition that only her first name be used.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the film is "disgusting and reprehensible." She called it a cynical attempt to offend people for their religious beliefs but said the U.S. would never stop Americans from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful.
Still, she said the film is no justification for violence or attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel.