U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the suggestion that emails implicating an Al Qaeda-linked group in the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi were proof of terrorist involvement, saying their claims of responsibility on Facebook and Twitter were not "evidence."
The recently obtained emails, which raise questions about whether the White House was trying to cover up the nature of the attack, show that the State Department told administration officials and the FBI within two hours of the attack on the consulate that the terrorist group Ansar al Sharia had claimed responsibility.
"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," Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote in a letter to President Obama. "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.
"The American people have the right to know what information your Administration was receiving about the attacks in Benghazi once they began, when you received it, how you reacted to it, and why you and other members of your Administration continued for days after the attack to speak about it in ways that increasingly seem at odds with intelligence and other reporting that you had available to you,” they wrote. “We urge you to address the American people directly on these and other vital questions that still surround the tragic murder of our fellow citizens last month in Libya."
Yet Clinton claimed that, "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."
She suggested those producing the emails were "cherry picking" documentation, as the White House noted the organization reportedly had denied responsibility in other settings.
"There were emails about all sorts of information that was coming available in the aftermath of the attack,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “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,” he added.
Carney pointed out that an Ansar al Sharia Facebook posting claiming responsibility for the attack was widely known at the time and was denounced by the group's leadership soon after.
"This is an open source, unclassified email about a posting on a Facebook site,” Carney said. “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.”
Administration officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, initially blamed the attack, which resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, on Muslim anger over an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube. Only later did President Obama announce that the attack had, in fact, been an act of terror.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has launched an investigation into the attack and sent a letter to President Obama last week questioning whether administration officials had been aware of threats to the consulate and denied requests from diplomats in Libya for additional security.
Mitt Romney has seized on the attack prior to the election as further evidence of President Obama’s feeble handling of foreign policy.