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Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Top Aides Knew from First Minutes that Benghazi Was a Terrorist Attack, E-mails Disclose

From the very first moments of the terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her top aides were advised that the compound was under a terrorist attack. In fact, less than two hours into the attack, they were told that the al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia, had claimed responsibility.

These revelations and others are disclosed by a trove of e-mails and other documents pried from the State Department by Judicial Watch in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The FOIA litigation focuses on Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in the government actions before, during, and after the Benghazi attack, in which Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was murdered by terrorists. Also killed in the attack were State Department information management officer Sean Smith, and two former Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were contract security employees and who had fought heroically, saving numerous American lives. At least ten other Americans were wounded, some quite seriously.

At 4:07 p.m., just minutes after the terrorist attack began, Cheryl Mills, Secretary Clinton’s chief-of-staff, and Joseph McManus, Mrs. Clinton’s executive assistant, received an e-mail from the State Department’s operations center (forwarded to her by Maria Sand, a special assistant to Secretary Clinton). It contained a report from the State Department’s regional security officer (RSO), entitled “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi is Under Attack.” The e-mail explained that approximately 20 armed people had fired shots at the diplomatic mission, that explosions had been heard as well, and that Ambassador Stevens was believed to be in the compound with at least four other State Department officials.

About a half-hour later, another e-mail — this one from Scott Bultrowicz, then director of diplomatic security (DSCC) — related:

15 armed individuals were attacking the compound and trying to gain entrance. The Ambassador is present in Benghazi and currently is barricaded within the compound. There are no injuries at this time and it is unknown what the intent of the attackers is. At approximately 1600 [4 p.m.] DSCC received word from Benghazi that individuals had entered the compound. At 1614 [4:14 p.m.] RSO advised the Libyans had set fire to various buildings in the area, possibly the building that houses the Ambassador [REDACTED] is responding and taking fire.

At 6:06 p.m., another e-mail that went to top State Department officials explained that the local al-Qaeda affiliate had claimed responsibility for the attack:

Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack (SBU):  “(SBU) Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and call for an attack on Embassy Tripoli”

Despite this evidence that her top staffers were informed from the start that a terrorist attack was underway and that an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group had claimed credit for it, Secretary Clinton issued an official statement claiming the assault may have been in “response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.”

This was a reference to an obscure anti-Islamic video trailer for a film called Innocence of Muslims. Secretary Clinton’s statement took pains to add that “the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others” — further intimating that the video was the cause of the attack.

I have previously recounted that this official Clinton statement was issued shortly after 10 p.m. — minutes after President Obama and Secretary Clinton spoke briefly on the telephone about events in Benghazi, according to Clinton’s congressional testimony. The White House initially denied that Obama had spoken with Clinton or other top cabinet officials that night. The president’s version of events changed after Secretary Clinton’s testimony.

As I’ve also previously detailed (see here and here), Gregory Hicks, Ambassador Stevens’ deputy who was in Tripoli at the time of the Benghazi attacks, was the main State Department official in Libya briefing his superiors that night. He testified before Congress that he briefed Secretary Clinton and her top aides at 8 p.m. He further testified that the video was a “non-event” in Benghazi.

Hicks added that he was clear in his briefing and other communications with his superiors that the Benghazi operation was a terrorist attack. Indeed, at the time he briefed Clinton, the pressing concern was that Ambassador Stevens might then be being held at a hospital that was under the control of terrorists. An hour later, at 9 p.m., Hicks learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens had been killed.

At 12:11 a.m., about two hours after the issuance of Secretary Clinton’s statement suggesting that the video had prompted the violence, Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief-of-staff, e-mailed State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland to ask, “Can we stop answering emails for the night Toria b/c now the first one is hanging out there.” This appears to be a suggestion that the State Department allow Secretary Clinton’s statement stand alone as the department’s narrative for the media. At the time, the attack was still ongoing and there were still press inquiries about Ambassador Stevens’s whereabouts and well-being.  

The revelations in the newly released e-mails were unveiled by Judicial Watch this afternoon at a press conference in Washington. In a press statement, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton asserted that the e-mails left “no doubt that Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers knew the truth about the Benghazi attack from almost the moment it happened.” Mr. Fitton further opined that “it is inescapable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knowingly lied when she planted the false story about ‘inflammatory material being posted on the Internet.’ The contempt for the public’s right to know is evidenced not only in these documents but also in the fact that we had to file a lawsuit in federal court to obtain them.” 

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