Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed reports Wednesday that the White House was made aware that extremist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi through a Facebook posting the night 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 today. "What I keep in mind is that four brave Americans were killed, and we will find out what happened, we will take whatever measures are necessary to fix anything that needs to be fixed, and we will bring those to justice who committed these murders. And I think that that is what we have said, that is what we are doing, and I'm very confident that we will achieve those goals."
Clinton was responding to today's revelation of emails sent on the night of the attack from the State Department operations center to administration officials describing the assault as it was in progress and noting that the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility that day on Facebook and Twitter.
"Look, I've said it and I'll say it one more time: No one wants to find out what happened more than I do. We are holding ourselves accountable to the American people because not only they, but our brave diplomats and development experts serving in dangerous places around the world, deserve no less," she said. "The independent Accountability Review Board 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."
The first email, sent on Sept. 11 at 4:05 p.m. Washington time, reported that 20 armed men had fired on the compound, that explosions were heard, and that Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other personnel were in the compound safe haven. The second email at 4:54 stated that the shooting had stopped. The third email said that Ansar al-Sharia had claimed credit on Facebook and Twitter.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today that the operations center has the responsibility to report on open source information it finds and sometimes that includes multiple reports of responsibility after an attack. The operations center reporting is not meant to be definitive, she said.
"In keeping folks informed, the Ops Center obviously is looking at the totality of what's out there in the public domain. When things begin to become picked up, when they become something that people are talking about, they obviously have a responsibility to inform principals. But it is not the job of the Operations Center in passing these things on to analyze them, to weight them in any way, shape, or form," she said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today that the emails don't directly contradict his own comments after the attack, such as on Sept. 14 when he said, "We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack."
"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."
Regardless, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) sent a letter to President Barack Obama demanding an explanation as to how the new reports reconcile with administration accounts of the attack at the time and since.
"These emails make clear that your Administration knew within two hours of the attack that it was a terrorist act and that Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group with links to Al-Qaeda, had claimed responsibility for it. This latest revelation only adds to the confusion surrounding what you and your Administration knew about the attacks in Benghazi, when you knew it, and why you responded to those tragic events in the ways that you did," they wrote.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.