Published October 24, 2012
The public understanding of when the Obama administration knew, or should have known, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was terrorism got even muddier Wednesday.
As newly released emails showed a local militant group was on the administration's radar within hours of the attack, CBS News released a quote from a Sept. 12 interview in which President Obama seemed to acknowledge the strike was more than just a protest over an anti-Islam film.
In the interview with "60 Minutes," Obama downplayed the notion the attack was mob violence, as was thought to be the case with a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt.
"You're right that this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt, and my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start," Obama told CBS News.
On one hand, the comment lines up with the president's Rose Garden remarks that day, when he referred to "acts of terror." However, it also sharply conflicts with what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice would go on to say four days later on a round of Sunday talk shows, in which she claimed the protest in Cairo helped trigger the "spontaneous" attack in Benghazi.
Newly released State Department emails added to the picture this week, as they showed top officials were alerted to militant group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi claiming responsibility on Facebook and Twitter shortly after the strike began. The group has since denied carrying out the attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed those emails.
"Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence," Clinton said. "And I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be."
She suggested those producing the emails were "cherrypicking" documentation, as the White House noted the organization reportedly had denied responsibility in other settings.
"I think within a few hours that organization itself claimed that it had not been responsible. Neither should be taken as fact," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
But the group is a prime suspect. Indeed, one suspect in custody in Tunisia is a member of Ansar al-Sharia, one lawmaker told Fox News.
Three Republican senators, in a letter Wednesday to the White House, said they were "disturbed" by the latest email revelations, claiming it "adds to the confusion" about what the administration knew of the attacks.
"In television interviews nearly a week after the events in Benghazi, you yourself even refused to describe it as a terrorist attack, instead emphasizing the role played by a hateful video. This concerted misrepresentation of the facts of the case -- facts that, it appears, you and your administration possessed almost as soon as the attack began -- is why so many of our constituents are demanding a fuller explanation of why your administration responded as it did," wrote Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. They called on the president to "address the American people directly" on what happened.
Though the emails, obtained by Fox News on Tuesday, are just one piece of the puzzle, they reveal some of the most detailed information yet about what officials were saying to each other in the initial hours after the attack. And they again raise questions about why Rice, apparently based on intelligence assessments, would claim five days after the attack that it was a "spontaneous" reaction to protests over an anti-Islam film.
The emails obtained by Fox News were sent by the State Department to a variety of national security platforms, whose addresses have been redacted, including the White House Situation Room, the Pentagon, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence.
Fox News was told that an estimated 300 to 400 national security figures received these emails in real time almost as the raid was playing out and concluding. People who received these emails work directly under the nation's top national security, military and diplomatic officials, Fox News was told.
The timestamps on the emails are all Eastern Time and often include the subheading SBU, which is shorthand for "Sensitive But Unclassified."
The third email came at 6:07 p.m. ET and was sent to a different email list but still includes the White House Situation Room address and a subject line of "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack (SBU)."
"Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli," the email reads.
Earlier emails did not go into who might have been responsible for the attack.
The first email indicates that U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and other personnel were "in the compound safe haven." Officials later discovered that Stevens and three other Americans had died in the attack.
The first email was sent at 4:05 p.m. ET with the subject line: "U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack (SBU)."
"The Regional Security Officer reports the diplomatic mission is under attack," the email reads. "Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well. Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four COM personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support.
"The operations Center will provide updates as available."
The second email came at 4:54 p.m. ET, with a subject line: "Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi (SBU)"
"Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has stopped and the compound has been cleared. A response team is on site attempting to locate COM personnel."
An additional State Department email obtained Wednesday by Fox News updated officials with accounts that the “shelter” location had later come under attack.
The email, sent at 11:57 p.m. ET, reported that the “current shelter location for COM personnel in Benghazi is under attack by mortar fire. There are reports of injuries to COM staff."