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NYT editor defiant on Benghazi report amid lawmaker criticism

 

A New York Times editor on Monday staunchly defended a controversial report on the Benghazi attack which largely backed the State Department's narrative, amid withering criticism from congressional Republicans and others. 

The State Department, as might be expected, also spoke in defense of the New York Times article. 

"Much of what's in this in-depth investigation ... tracks with what the [internal review board] found and with our understanding of the facts," Marie Harf, a spokeswoman from the State Department, said Monday. 

The lengthy Times report and the subsequent fallout represent the latest battle over the public narrative of what happened the night of Sept. 11, 2012. Even the State Department's internal review did not offer a definitive explanation of what caused the attack and who was behind it. 

The Times investigation, though, aggravated some of the department's toughest critics by concluding there was no involvement from Al Qaeda or any other international terror group and that an anti-Islam film played a role in inciting the initial wave of attacks. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told "Fox News Sunday" that the intelligence community would dispute that. He said the story was "not accurate." 

But in a defiant column, Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal challenged -- in an almost-mocking tone -- those Republicans, whom he claimed "ran screaming to television studios" to air their complaints with the story. 

He argued that those trying to claim Al Qaeda was involved were doing so for strictly political reasons. 

"For anyone wondering why it's so important to Republicans that Al Qaeda orchestrated the attack -- or how the Obama administration described the attack in its immediate aftermath -- the answer is simple. The Republicans hope to tarnish Democratic candidates by making it seem as though Mr. Obama doesn't take Al Qaeda seriously," he wrote. "They also want to throw mud at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who they fear will run for president in 2016." 

Rosenthal also described as "hilarious" the suggestion that the article was meant to give Clinton a boost in 2016. "Since I will have more to say about which candidate we will endorse in 2016 than any other editor at the Times, let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton. We haven't chosen anyone. I can also state definitively that there was no editorial/newsroom conspiracy of any kind, because I knew nothing about the Benghazi investigation article until I read it in the paper on Sunday," he wrote. 

However, while Rosenthal focused only on Republicans' criticism of the article, the piece also generated considerable pushback from Democrats as well as U.S. personnel on the ground in Libya

California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff told Fox News that the "intelligence indicates Al Qaeda was involved." 

Part of the dispute over Al Qaeda's involvement centers on the definition of Al Qaeda. 

Few have tried to claim the attack was an operation directed by Al Qaeda's central leadership. Harf indeed reiterated Monday that there are "no indications, at this point, that core Al Qaeda directed or planned what happened in Benghazi." 

But some lawmakers say the militants involved clearly have Al Qaeda ties, including the group Ansar al-Shariah 

"It's a distinction without a difference," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said. 

Lawmakers also objected to the conclusion about the anti-Islam film. 

That conclusion conflicts with testimony from Greg Hicks, the deputy to ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the attack. Hicks described the video as "a non-event in Libya" at that time, and consequently not a significant trigger for the attack 

Sean Smith, a foreign service officer, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were also killed in the 2012 attack. 

But Harf, while not going so far as to say the Times article vindicated the department, defended the conclusion that the video played a role. 

"It was clear to anyone watching what happened around the Muslim world on that day that the video clearly in places inspired protests and violent protests in some places," she said. "What role that played in the attack, that's obviously all part of the ongoing investigation, but we certainly always said from the beginning that this was complicated, there was a lot at play here, that the video clearly inspired anger and in some places violence." 

The video was linked to protests around the world, before the attack. But the State Department initially claimed that the Benghazi attack sprung out of a similar protest -- only to later admit there was no protest on the ground before the attack.