WASHINGTON – Two hours after the U.S. Consulate came under attack in Benghazi, Libya, the White House was told that a militant group was claiming responsibility for the violence that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
A State Department email sent to intelligence officials and the White House situation room said the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and also called for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
The document may fuel Republican efforts to show that the White House knew it was a terrorist attack, even as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was saying – five days afterward – that it appeared to be a protest gone awry.
The Obama administration’s account of the Benghazi events has become a campaign issue, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers accusing the White House of misleading Americans about the nature of the attack. But militant groups often claim responsibility after such attacks, and it’s difficult to immediately verify such claims.
The Associated Press and other news organizations obtained the unclassified email and two related emails from government officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about them publicly.
The House and Senate committees that oversee intelligence received a raft of documents from the Office of Director of National Intelligence on Monday, two congressional aides said. Congressional staffers combing through the documents have found a kaleidoscope of sometimes conflicting intelligence, backing up much of what intelligence officials explained over the past several weeks.
But members of both committees are still complaining that the original briefing they were given just after the September attack differed markedly from the explanation CIA Director David Petraeus gave them by the end of that week. In that first briefing, just 12 hours after the consulate was burned down, the intelligence committees received a report that it was a military style assault, but just days later, Petraeus stressed that militants had infiltrated a mob, a U.S. official said.
U.S. intelligence officials have said Petraeus outlined that extremists were believed to be in the crowd, and carried out the attack, and also stressed the picture was still evolving.
A U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday that it was “clear from the outset that a group of people gathered that evening” but that it took until the week after the attack to determine “whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants.”
The official said the briefing included the analysis that the attacks “appeared spontaneous,” but also mentioned possible links to regional al-Qaida groups.
Meanwhile, the Tunisian government said it has arrested a 28-year-old Tunisian linked to the U.S. Consulate attack. Interior Ministry spokesman Tarrouch Khaled said Wednesday that the suspect, Ali Harzi, was in custody in Tunis. Khaled told the AP “his case is in the hands of justice,” but did not elaborate.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the review board she appointed to investigate the attack is “looking at everything,” rather than “cherry picking one story here or one document there.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the emails represented just one piece of information the administration was receiving at the time.
“There were emails about all sorts of information that was becoming available in the aftermath of the attack,” Carney said. “The whole point of an intelligence community and what they do is to assess strands of information and make judgments about what happened and who is responsible.”