The Benghazi attack and what the White House knew

Reuters reports: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday a Facebook post in which an Islamic militant group claimed credit for a recent attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya did not constitute hard evidence of who was responsible.

“Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence. I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be,” Clinton said during an appearance with the Brazilian foreign minister at the State Department.

The report also reveals that the White House was informed by email about the attack while it was occurring — though this isn’t quite a smoking gun from a cover-up. Forty-nine minutes after first reporting the attack and that Ambassador Stevens and other staff were in the compound safe haven, a follow-up report said that “the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared.”

Michael Hirsh writes: It was, from the start, about as hard an intelligence problem as you can find. The date was September 11, and the CIA was stretched thin, monitoring anti-American protests in no fewer than 54 countries that day, according to Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper. Post-Gaddafi Libya itself was still chaotic, caught up in the fog of war, and indeed Ambassador Chris Stevens, at great personal risk, had journeyed to his old Arab Spring-era stomping ground in Benghazi to assess the situation himself. Still, Clapper recently told an annual conference of intelligence professionals that there was no warning to Stevens or anyone else that he was about to be targeted by an organized extremist attack.

So in the ensuing days, the fog lifted only very gradually. The intelligence community did not see a clear way to explain the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans. And as the probe advanced they began shifting their assessment dramatically. Four days after the attacks, on September 15, intel briefers sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice off to tape the Sunday talk shows with talking points that suggested Stevens’ death was the result of “spontaneous” protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. And that’s what Rice said on CBS’s Face the Nation “based on the best information we have to date,” as she put it. Rice added, however, that “soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that — in that effort with heavy weapons.”

“It was clear from the outset that a group of people gathered that evening. A key question early on was whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants,” says an intelligence official involved in the Benghazi assessment. “It took time — until that next week — to sort through varied and sometimes conflicting accounts to understand the group’s overall composition.”

By the following week, however, the DNI came to believe that there had been no protest at all. “That was genuine fog of war issue,” said one intelligence professional involved in the Benghazi assessments. “Press reports at the time indicated there had been. It took about a week or so to iron that out.” On September 28, Shawn Turner, spokesman for Clapper’s office, said in a statement that as U.S. intelligence learned more about the attack, “we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

To supporters of Mitt Romney in the chattering classes and in the House of Representatives, where an investigative committee has been hard at work probing the attacks and, apparently, leaking information, there is a lot more going on here. They see a deliberate effort by the Obama Administration to play down evidence that new al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups were at work killing Americans. After all, one of the president’s big talking points in a tough election race is that he’s killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al Qaeda.

It sounds very plausible. There’s only one problem with that view: No evidence has surfaced so far to support the idea that the Obama Administration deceived the public deliberately.

CBS News reports: A Tunisian man who was arrested in Turkey this month with reported links to the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya is facing terrorism charges, his lawyer said Wednesday, as an Egyptian official said a militant suspected of involvement was killed in clashes in Cairo.

An Egyptian interior ministry source told CBS News’ Alex Ortiz the suspect in Egypt, known only by his first name, Hazem, was killed after neighbors summoned police for a suspicious resident. The police came in and exchanged fire with the target. The man blew himself up in his apartment during the engagement with security forces.

It is unclear whether Hazem was Egyptian, or just living in Cairo.

An Egyptian official told the Associated Press the man recently returned from Libya and kept weapons in his hideout. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said an investigation into the man’s possible involvement in the consulate attack is under way.

In Tunisia, suspect Ali Harzi was repatriated on Oct. 11 by authorities in Turkey, and a judge issued his arrest warrant, lawyer Ouled Ali Anwar told The Associated Press. He said his client was told by a judge Tuesday that he has been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization in a time of peace in another country.”

U.S. officials told CBS News’ David Martin Wednesday that Harzi is not considered to be one of the ring leaders of the Benghazi attack; So far the FBI has not been allowed to question him

A person who saw Harzi’s court dossier told The Associated Press that the file links him to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

He said Harzi is one of two Tunisians reportedly arrested Oct. 3 in Turkey when they tried to enter the country with false passports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. Harzi’s alleged role in the attack is not clear.

Anwar denied there was any evidence that Ali was implicated in the attacks. He added his client was not using a fake passport, saying he was a “scapegoat to satisfy the Americans.”

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