E-mails: White House was told about Libya militant link within hours


JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 14: U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walk away from the podium during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony for the return of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Libyan embassy employees at Joint Base Andrews September 14. 2012 in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Stevens and the three other embassy employees were killed when the consulate in Libya was attacked September 11. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)


Molly Riley

A series of e-mails between the White House and State Department officials show that the administration was advised within hours after the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi that militants had claimed responsibility, reports Reuters. 

The attacks on September 11 killed four Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens. 

The e-mails mention specifically that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks.

The recipients of the e-mails have been blacked out, but ABC News reports that an anonymous source said that they were likely sent to "distribution lists and e-mail accounts for the top national security officials at the State Department, Pentagon, the FBI, the White House Situation Room and the office of the Director of National Intelligence."

The first e-mail, published by ABC News, came at 4:05 p.m. and was titled "US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack":

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.

Two more e-mails followed. One at 4:54 p.m. stated that the shooting had stopped, and a final email from 6:07 p.m. said that militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attack on Facebook and Twitter, and threatened to attack the Tripoli embassy.

According to ABC, the timing of the e-mails corresponds to what a senior State Department official told reporters at a briefing on Oct. 9. 

However, the Obama administration has been under intense criticism for their handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks. 

The administration claimed for days that the attacks were prompted by a YouTube video on called “Innocence of Muslims” that triggered protests in Cairo and eventually spilled over into Libya before finally admitting it was a "terrorist" attack by militants linked to Al Qaeda, reports Reuters. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to absolve the White House of responsibility over the security lapses in Libya by claiming it was her responsibility. 

On Wednesday, she further cautioned against reading too much into the news of social media posts and e-mail traffic at the time of the attack.

"Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence, and I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be," Clinton said, according to Foreign Policy.

The controversy has spilled over into the presidential election and caused a well-reported argument during the second debate over when, specifically, Obama used the words "act of terror" to describe the attacks.

More from GlobalPost: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Takes Responsibility for Benghazi Attacks 

The group that claimed responsibility for the attacks, Ansar al Sharia, has been declared by the State Department to be affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Fox News reports that a member of the group suspected of participating in the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi has been arrested and is being held in Tunisia.

Aside from the emails, it is unclear what other information was received by agencies in Washington from Libya about who might have been behind the attacks.

Intelligence experts told Reuters that initial reports from the scene of any attack or disaster are often inaccurate and that one official said that during the first classified Congressional briefing about Benghazi, officials "carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time."

The official also told Reuters however, that the initial analysis that legislators heard was mixed.

"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," the official said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney downplayed the news of the emails on Wednesday, saying, "There was a variety of information coming in. 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."

"This is an open source, unclassified email about a posting on a Facebook site," he said, according to Politico. "I would also note that within a few hours the organization itself claimed that it had not been responsible. Neither should be taken as fact. That is why there is an investigation."