The Campaign Spot

White House Told of Benghazi Militants Within Two Hours

Ever since the first question of the final debate, Republicans have wondered why Mitt Romney was so subdued in discussing the attack on our consulate in Benghazi and the administration’s shifting story. One theory is that discussion of the Benghazi attack, the ignored warnings, and the lingering erroneous explanation was hurting Obama as is — it’s one of the few stories where the mainstream media has asked hard questions and broadcasted hard-hitting pieces — and that Romney discussing it actually makes the story less damaging to Obama, as some voters may dismiss it as the usual partisan back-and-forth.

That unexpected approach may now look vindicated, with this eye-popping scoop from Reuters this morning.

Officials at the White House and State Department were advised two hours after attackers assaulted the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 that an Islamic militant group had claimed credit for the attack, official emails show.

The emails, obtained by Reuters from government sources not connected with U.S. spy agencies or the State Department and who requested anonymity, specifically mention that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks.

The brief emails also show how U.S. diplomats described the attack, even as it was still under way, to Washington.

The article reports, “A third email, also marked SBU [Sensitive But Unclassified] and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: ‘Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.’” For perspective, this was right around the time the attackers removed Ambassador Stevens from the consulate. Thus, the White House was being told about an al-Qaeda affiliated group taking credit for the attack before Stevens died.

Here is what Susan Rice said, five days later, on ABC News’ “This Week“:

Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.

We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.

… and on NBC News’ “Meet the Press”:

But putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of– of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.  What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding.

… and on CBS News’ “Face the Nation”:

based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy.

and on “Fox News Sunday“:

Well, first of all, Chris, we are obviously investigating this very closely. The FBI has a lead in this investigation. The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control.

But we don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack. Obviously, we will wait for the results of the investigation and we don’t want to jump to conclusions before then. But I do think it’s important for the American people to know our best current assessment.

By October 9, the assessment was completely different: “Prior to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi late in the evening on Sept. 11, there was no protest outside the compound, a senior State Department official confirmed today, contradicting initial administration statements suggesting that the attack was an opportunistic reaction to unrest caused by an anti-Islam video.”

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