Benghazi Emails: Smoking Gun Or Fog Of War?

In a story that’s taking on heat and just a little concern for Democrats this close to a close election, newly-released emails discussing the when, why and, particularly, the who behind the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack on the American embassy that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans, offer, potentially, explosive revelations about critical information being known more quickly than originally reported.

Making a tsunami rush across the media this morning, this story has been reported with all the usual spin from news sources such as Fox News and Breitbart, as well as more objective sources including CNN U.S., The Huffington Postand others, but it was Reuters who appears to have had the initial report last night that opened with the following:

Officials at 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 the Ansar al-Sharia militant group had claimed credit for the attack, official emails show.

Reuters claims to have received three emails from anonymous sources reported as being not connected to any U.S. spy agencies or the State Department, emails sent during and within hours of the attack, with the recipients’ names heavily redacted. The first came at 4:05 PM, titled “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack (SBU) (meaning “Sensitive but unclassified”) and stated:

“The Regional Security Officer reports the diplomatic mission is under attack. 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 second came at 4:54 PM, titled, “Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi (SBU)”:

“Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has topped and the compound has been cleared. A response team is on the site attempting to locate COM personnel.”

The third came at 6:07 PM, titled: “Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Reponsibility for Benghazi Attack (SBU)”:

“Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli.”

This third appears to be the potential “smoking gun” Republicans and White House enemies have been looking for; evidence that the White House knowingly ignored or covered up knowledge of a specific terrorist group involved, with the President blithely traveling to a Las Vegas fundraiser instead of acting on that information.

A more realistic scenario takes into account the confusion that seems to have clearly ensued during and immediately after the attack, as Reuters also reports:

Intelligence experts caution that initial reports from the scene of any attack or disaster are often inaccurate.

The original White House response, well covered in the weeks that followed, was that the “act of terror” committed at Benghazi was reported to be part of a “spontaneous” reaction to an incendiary video depicting Islam in an insulting light. This initial understanding was based, as reported by White House spokesman, Jay Carney, on unclassified reports from the CIA indicating that the attacks were likely, such a response; as we now know, this was later discounted.

But, in fact, even after the “reaction to the video” scenario was being discounted or at least minimized, according to Reuters there remained a great deal of confusion about who or what else might be responsible for the attack:

By the morning of Sept. 12, the day after the Benghazi attack, there were indications that members of both Ansar al-Sharia, a militia based in the Benghazi area, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of al Qaeda’s faltering central command, may have been involved in organizing the attacks.

Even Fox News referred to the confusion, acknowledging the subsequent denial by Ansar al-Sharia for any responsibility:

The Facebook claim of involvement was subsequently denied by the group at a news conference in the following days, but not very convincingly: “We are saluting our people for this zeal in protecting their religion, to grant victory to the prophet,” a spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia said at the time. “The response has to be firm.”

Whether that denial was “very convincingly” asserted or not – a somewhat subjective (though predictable) take from Fox News – the fact remains that, historically, most terrorist groups are eager to take the onus for terrorist attacks for which they are responsible. Ansar al-Sharia’s denial of such responsibility is counter to that tendency and, taken at face value, lends support to the notion that they were not, in fact, involved, contributing to the cautious and exploratory stance taken by the White House and State Department in the days following the attack.

That stance, as Reuters confirmed, was based on the evidence, conflicting or otherwise, that was available at the time:

One U.S. intelligence official said that during the first classified briefing about Benghazi given to members of Congress, officials “carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time.”

The official added, in fact, that the initial analysis of the attack presented to legislators was a mix of the many possible scenarios in discussion:

“Briefers said extremists were involved in attacks that appeared spontaneous, there may have been a variety of motivating factors, and possible links to groups such as (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia) were being looked at closely.”

As for the White House’s response to these newly released emails today, Yahoo News reports:

White House officials maintained that the emails don’t contradict what the White House believed at that point, based on the intelligence community’s assessment of the attack. The views of the intelligence community are valued far more than Facebook and Twitter claims, officials said, describing that email as an unclassified ops alert email, not a vetted intelligence assessment. It was not definitive, but rather the act of flagging open source reporting referencing a Facebook post, and – officials noted – on September 17, Ansar al-Sharia denied responsibility for the attack.

Clearly, in the heated climate of partisan politics, “gotcha” journalism, “October surprises,” and the scramble for game-changing news as we get closer to Election Day, the bona fide interest and necessary concern about actual facts and verifiable details of the Benghazi attack need to be viewed outside the scope of politics. This story is still unfolding. It is one that demands responsible and sensitive diplomacy, one playing out in a political arena that requires care be taken in reporting events that impact the lives of Americans and others involved. While it’s essential to get to the truth, it is also essential to view the release of these emails as part of a bigger picture that remains under investigation. Those on the Right may imply nefarious intentions and actions on the part of the White House, the State Department and the President, but the rest of the electorate, the world, wants truth, supported by irrefutable evidence, not spin.

Whether smoking gun or the fog of war, the reporting, investigating, analysis, and ultimate understanding of any act of war, including the Benghazi attack, require the wisdom of clear and responsible objectivity…not partisan politics. Let’s keep that in mind.

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