Was Al Qaeda involved in Benghazi attack?

Reaction from 'Special Report' All-Star panel


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," December 30, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-MICH.: I don't know, it was an exhaustive investigation. We have gone through some 4,000 different classified cables leading up to the event, talked to people on the ground during the event, done the postmortem on the event through the committee investigation.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: So what did they get wrong?

ROGERS: That Al Qaeda was not involved in this.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-CALIF.: The intelligence indicates that Al Qaeda was involved. But there were also plenty of people and militias unaffiliated with Al Qaeda that were involved.


JOHN ROBERTS, GUEST HOST: Members of the intelligence committee in the House reacting to The New York Times article over the weekend, an extensive analysis of the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012, in which The New York Times concluded there was no Al Qaeda connection among any of the militants that took part in the attack.

Let's bring in our panel now, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, Kirsten Powers, columnist for The Daily Beast, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Steve, let's start with you, because you took this on in an article in the The Weekly Standard. You said that the New York Times David Kirkpatrick did extensive reporting on the ground but missed a few key points.

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, I think he missed on the big conclusions. I think his reporting was in many respects terrific. The details that he provided about the inside of the mother's house of one of the chief suspects of the Benghazi attacks, fantastic on the ground minute by minute reporting.

Where he made a mistake I think is drawing sweeping conclusions that weren't justified either by his reporting or the body of evidence that's been collected about the attacks since. And his main mistake I think was declaring in a categorical way that there was no Al Qaeda involvement and no involvement of international terrorist groups.

We know for a fact that the Muhammad Jamal network, members of the Muhammad Jamal network, which is an international organization based largely in Cairo in Egypt, run by a guy with close ties to Ayman al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders, was involved in this attack. We know that other international terrorists, terrorists from around the region were involved and participants in this attack. We know that communications went out between folks involved in the attack and others outside connecting with Al Qaeda discussing this attack.

So it is very clear there were not only ties but strong ties. Nobody is suggesting that Ayman al Zawahiri was sitting in Pakistan and saying, "You go do this attack and do it in this way." Nobody is suggesting that. But at the same time, among those examples that I've provided, there was another one -- an attacker who later collected information and we were told at The Weekly Standard delivered that information back to senior Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

So, there were clearly Al Qaeda ties. It is a stretch to say that there weren't. And it's inaccurate to make a sweeping and categorical claim that Al Qaeda and international groups had nothing to do with this.

ROBERTS: Kirsten, you make the point that focusing all of this on Al Qaeda really is kind of focusing on the wrong thing.

KIRSTEN POWERS, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: It is a little bit of a straw man argument in the sense, if you remember what the outcry was about after Susan Rice went on the shows, at that point nobody knew who did it, but there was a pretty good sense that it was a terrorist attack and the administration wasn't calling it a terrorist attack. And they took quite some time actually until they did come out and say that.

So it wasn't that it was Al Qaeda per se, even though I think there is evidence to show there were Al Qaeda affiliated groups. At a minimum they are affiliated, maybe not core Al Qaeda. But the description that the administration was giving just wasn't accurate, that these people were out and upset about a video and they sort of haphazardly attacked in Benghazi, which actually Kirkpatrick's reporting, he does say it was a terrorist attack. Well, that really was something that the administration was very slow on coming around to.

ROBERTS: Charles, Steven also included in his article the reporting from the New York Times over the weekend contradicts the reporting the New York Times did a year prior when it said that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Muhammad Jamal network with Al Qaeda ties, were involved with this according to administration officials.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: That is what is wrong with his reporting. If he had just said I wasn't able to find any ties to Al Qaeda and these networks, you would have disputed that, but at least that would have been a circumscribed statement. He shined the flashlight on a part of the crime of the scene and he wasn't able to locate these links.

But he went beyond that and said there are no such ties. If you say that, then you can't only rely on your reporting. You then have to refute all of the evidence from Mike Rogers, all the cables he saw that Kirkpatrick obviously hasn't seen, all of the evidence collected from eyewitnesses, all of the sources that Jennifer Griffin and others at Fox have who aren't able to come out into the open but clearly she has spoken to a huge number who contradict every element of this story.

So unless he can come out and show us why all of that is untrue, his statement hangs out there as a guess and one that doesn't look right. He should have stuck to his own reporting, in which case we wouldn't have the firestorm over this, where clearly he overstepped and clearly what he is saying is not so.

HAYES: And that is a key point, just to follow up on that. He was on the "Meet the Press" yesterday and David Gregory asked, would you say there was no Al Qaeda involvement? And his comment was, "I honestly think if you ask anybody in the U.S. intelligence business they would tell you the same thing." That is just not true. I literally have spoken to numbers of people in the U.S. intelligence who say there were Al Qaeda ties.

ROBERTS: You talk about this difference between Al Qaeda core and other Al Qaeda groups. That was a line that came out of the State Department today. Let's listen to what spokesperson Marie Harf said on that today.


MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: No indications at this point that core Al Qaeda directed or planned what happened in Benghazi. We do know, as we said from the beginning, that extremists were involved. These folks don't carry ID cards. They don't come out and wear a t-shirt that says, "I belong to Al Qaeda."


ROBERTS: Let me ask you about this idea of core Al Qaeda and other groups. I don't think most Americans say, "Oh, that is core Al Qaeda and this is another group." With so many different Al Qaeda groups out there, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb, all of the other groups, has Al Qaeda changed to the point where it is no longer a centrally-directed organization, it is more ideology that many different groups follow, but those groups are still Al Qaeda?

POWERS: I just want to say what she said is not correct. They didn't in the very beginning say it was extremists. It was just a bunch of people out for a walk and got upset about a video and attacked. That was sort of spontaneously attacked.

So I think it is a straw man argument. I don't think it matters whether it is core Al Qaeda or someone affiliated with Al Qaeda. If you are affiliated with the head of Al Qaeda, then I think that that makes you Al Qaeda in some way. But at the end of the day, it is not -- I don't think that is the fundamental issue. The issue is this was a terrorist attack, not a protest.

ROBERTS: One final point, Charles, if I could. New York Times editorial editor Andrew Rosenthal defended the story today in a blog saying this is all about politics. He said, quote, "Republicans hope to tarnish Democratic candidates by making it seem that Mr. Obama doesn't take Al Qaeda seriously. They also want to throw mud at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who they fear will run for president in 2016."

Is this all about politics?

KRAUTHAMMER: I think he gave the game away by being defensive about this.  He is making it quite obvious the reason The Times invested all the effort and time in this and put it on the front page is precisely a way to protect the Democrats, to deflect the issue, to protect Hillary, who was exposed on this issue with almost no issue in her tenure in the administration. It is obviously a political move.

But just one point on that State Department spokesperson. Saying it is not Al Qaeda because it isn't core Al Qaeda is absurd. It is like saying that if the Greek resistance in the Second World War launched an attack on a Nazi outpost, it wasn't part of the allied effort if they had gotten a direct order from Churchill. Obviously these are elements in the struggle. They are all united in the sense, in their ideology and often in their links, and that is all you've got to know.

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