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U.S. knew of terror claims in Libya embassy hit
1:30PM EDT October 24. 2012 - The White House and State Department were advised two hours after attackers assaulted the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that an Islamic terrorist group had claimed credit for the attack, official e-mails show.
The e-mails, obtained first by Reuters and later by USA TODAY, specifically mention that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks .The brief e-mails also show how U.S. diplomats described the attack, even as it was still under way, to the Obama administration.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi assault, which President Obama and other U.S. officials had initially blamed on an anti-Islam video produced by an American. The White House eventually acknowledged the attack was carried out by terrorists with suspected links to al-Qaeda affiliates.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One that the e-mails refer to a social media postings attributed to an al-Qaeda affiliated militia, Ansar al-Sharia, according to a pool report.
"There was a variety of information coming in," 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 was responsible."
White House and the director of National Intelligence said all along that their "preliminary assessments were preliminary (and) that an investigation was under way," he said.
However, Carney insisted for several days after the incident that intelligence had determined the attack was likely a spontaneous outburst from a mob that gathered in response to the video. Intelligence officials testifying before Congress have said there was no mob outside the consulate and the White House eventually acknowledged that the attack was planned for the anniversary of Sept. 11.
An official who provided the e-mails to USA TODAY described them as alerts dispatched to the White House Situation Room. The official requested anonymity due to not having the authority to disseminate the e-mails publicly.
The three e-mails were received by the State Department's Operations Center and sent immediately to multiple government offices, including addresses at the White House, Pentagon, intelligence community and FBI, on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
The first e-mail, timed at 4:05 p.m. ET -- or 10:05 p.m. Benghazi time, and about 20 to 30 minutes after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission allegedly began -- carried the subject line "U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack" and the notation "SBU", meaning "Sensitive But Unclassified."
The text said the State Department's regional security office had reported that the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was "under attack. Embassy in Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well."
The message continued: "Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four ... personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support."
A second e-mail, headed "Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi" and timed 4:54 p.m. Washington time, said that the Embassy in Tripoli had reported that "the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared." It said a "response team" was at the site attempting to locate missing personnel.
A third e-mail, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack."
"The message reported: "Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."
While some information identifying recipients of this message was redacted from copies of the messages obtained by Reuters, the official said that one of the addresses to which the message was sent was the White House Situation Room, the president's secure command post. Other addressees included intelligence and military units as well as one used by the FBI command center, the official said.
Carney, citing an unclassified assessment prepared by the CIA, maintained for days that indications were that the attacks emerged from a spontaneous protest against the anti-Islam video. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice also blamed the attack on a protest against the film that turned violent, and Obama told talk show host David Letterman seven days later that the attack was prompted by protests over the video as well.
The White House on Friday and again on Wednesday refused to say when Obama first received intelligence reports indicating that the attack was not related to the anti-Islam video. When asked the question, White House national security adviser Vietor said, "I'm declining to comment."
The State Department has declined to comment on the specifics until an investigation is completed, not scheduled to be done until after the Nov. 6 presidential election.
No e-mails have surfaced that indicate the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi reported a mob of protesters outside the consulate, only that the consulate was under attack. Given that the the CIA station chief in Libya determined within 24 hours of the attack that it was the work of terrorists, the question has arisen about why the White House continued claiming that the video was to blame.
While some administration officials did mention the possible involvement of "extremists," they did not lay blame on any specific militant groups or possible links to al-Qaeda or its affiliates until intelligence officials publicly alleged that on Sept. 28.