The slow, steady drip of information about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, continues: Reuters, CBS News, CNN, and other news organizations have obtained and published the same three emails from the State Department Operations Center to a number of addresses at the FBI, Directorate of National Intelligence, State Department, FBI, and White House, reportedly including the Situation Room. The brief emails (PDF), labeled "SBU" — sensitive but unclassified — started about 25 minutes after the attack began:
4:05 pm ET (10:05 pm in Libya): "U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi 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 [Chief of Mission/embassy] personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support."
4:54 pm ET: "Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi"
"Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has stopped and the compound has been cleared. A response team is on site attempting to locate COM personnel."
6:07 pm ET: "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack"
"Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."
Many conservatives have seized on the Obama administration's shifting story on the attack, arguing that the White House downplayed the terrorism aspect to protect the president's anti-terrorism record. So of course, they're jumping on that last email. For their part, White House officials and congressional sources briefed by intelligence agencies say these emails are a tiny fraction of the conflicting information that came in right after the attacks, and intelligence officials caution that early reports of violent attacks are often wrong. Plus, Ansar al-Sharia denied involvement in the attack the next day, says Elise Labott at CNN, though "not very convincingly."
"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," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday. The independent board she set up to investigate the attack "is already hard at work looking at everything, not cherry-picking one story here or one document there, but looking at everything, which I highly recommend as the appropriate approach to something as complex as an attack like this."
Oh, please, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. These emails are enough to show that "Obama is playing the media and, in turn, the American people for fools on the Libya scandal." For days, "the president and his advisers repeatedly told us the attack was a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim video." If the media is worth anything — an open question — it needs to demand answers from Obama and all his surrogates. For our safety and the good of the country, the president must "account for his conduct in a major national security scandal before an election."
There's one problem with this so-called scandal, says David Weigel at Slate: "Obama didn't pretend that this was merely 'a protest that got out of hand.'" The president called it an "act of terror" just hours afterward. And check out this (unaired) answer Obama gave to CBS News' Steve Kroft on Sept. 12: "You're right that this is not a situation that was — exactly the same as what happened in Egypt, and my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start." For whatever reason, Obama officials did start "soft-peddling the 'target Americans from the start' story" a few days later, when reporters started to "glom onto the Libya story" for the first time, but if you were paying attention all along, these emails aren't news. Of course, that's not to say there's no scandal. Weigel continues:
This is the oddity of the story we now call "Benghazigate." One "scandal," that Obama pretended the attacks were only spontaneous results of a protest, is baseless. The next scandal, that the administration didn't beef up security in Benghazi, is just harder to pin on a villain. So we hear more about the "shifting timeline," even though the president had implied that the attacks were terrorism four times in the 48 hours afterward.