Fox News' Catherine Herridge claims that a classified 2012 Department of Defense (DOD) memo would demonstrate that the Obama administration had deliberately concealed the fact that the Benghazi attack was perpetrated by terrorists. But news reports and subsequent investigations show that administration officials were quick to acknowledge the attackers' apparent links to terror groups.
Fox Claims Classified Memo Is Proof Administration Hid The Facts On Benghazi
Herridge: DOD Memo Shows Administration Knew About Terrorists' Connection To Benghazi Attack. Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge hyped a classified DOD memo that reportedly named 11 suspected perpetrators of the Benghazi attack who had connections to local terror networks al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Sharia. She claimed the memo "is significant because it arrived two days before then-UN ambassador Susan Rice appeared on television shows blaming the assault on an inflammatory video," and cited the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' Thomas Joscelyn to claim that the administration's public statements about the attack were essentially "willful blindness" (emphasis added):
A targeting memo sent to the State Department by the Defense Department's Africa Command two days after the Benghazi attack listed 11 suspects with ties to Al Qaeda and other groups, counter-terrorism and congressional sources confirmed to Fox News.
This is significant because it arrived two days before then-UN ambassador Susan Rice appeared on television shows blaming the assault on an inflammatory video. It also came nearly a day before presidential aide Ben Rhodes sent an email also suggesting the video - and not a policy failure - was to blame for the Sep, 11, 2012 attack that claimed four American lives.
The memo, which was referred to in passing during recent congressional testimony, was drawn up by the Defense Department's Africa command, known as Africom, and was sent to the State Department as the best available intelligence in the early morning hours of September 14, 2012.
It included the names of 11 suspects, four connected to the Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa known as AQIM, and seven connected to Ansar al-Sharia, a group with ties to the terrorist network.
The memo was among some 3,000 documents recently released by the State Department to the oversight committee. With the House Speaker establishing a select committee to investigate Benghazi, all documents from the relevant House committee investigations were handed over. [FoxNews.com, 6/13/14]
Administration Immediately Decried "Act Of Terror" In Benghazi
September 12: Obama On Benghazi: "No Acts Of Terror Will Ever Shake The Resolve Of This Great Nation." On September 12, the day after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, President Obama gave a speech in the Rose Garden and declared:
OBAMA: No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done. [WhiteHouse.gov, 9/12/12]
September 12: In Nevada, Obama On Benghazi: "No Act Of Terror Will Dim The Light" Of American Values. Later on September 12, Obama again labeled the Benghazi attacks an "act of terror." He told a crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada:
OBAMA: As for the ones we lost last night: I want to assure you, we will bring their killers to justice. And we want to send a message all around the world -- anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America. [WhiteHouse.gov, 9/12/12]
September 13: In Colorado, Obama Again Referred To The Benghazi Attack As An "Act Of Terror." In Golden, Colorado, on September 13, Obama again classified the Benghazi attack as an "act of terror." He told the crowd:
OBAMA: So what I want all of you to know is that we are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. [WhiteHouse.gov, 9/13/12]
Susan Rice, Other Administration Officials Acknowledged Extremists' Role In Attack
September 16: Susan Rice Acknowledged Extremists' Role In The Attack, But Noted "We'll Wait To See Exactly What The Investigation Finally Confirms." In her September 16 interview on ABC's This Week, then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice noted indications that "clusters of extremists" had been involved in the attack, but said that that the full investigation could offer more information later:
RICE: We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to -- or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in -- in the wake of the revolution in Libya are -- are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present. [ABC, This Week, 9/16/12]
September 16: Rice Says "It's Clear" Extremists Were Involved. In an interview with Rice on CBS' Face The Nation on September 16, host Bob Scheiffer asked about the role al Qaeda affiliates may have played in the attack. Rice noted that there was evidence of extremist involvement but said the extent of al Qaeda's involvement would have to be confirmed:
SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with [the previous guest, the president of Libya's general national congress] that al Qaeda had some part in this?
RICE: Well, we'll have to find out that out. I mean I think it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we'll have to determine. [CBS, Face The Nation, 9/16/12 via The Wall Street Journal]
September 16: Rice Confirms Individuals "With Extremist Ties" Were Involved. On the September 16 edition of Fox News Sunday, Rice told host Chris Wallace that individuals "with extremist ties" were involved in the assault on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. She noted that the investigation was ongoing but that there were no "signs this was a coordinated plan" at that point:
RICE: Well, first of all, Chris, we are obviously investigating this very closely. The FBI has a lead in this investigation. The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control.
But we don't see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack. Obviously, we will wait for the results of the investigation and we don't want to jump to conclusions before then. But I do think it's important for the American people to know our best current assessment. [Fox Broadcasting, Fox News Sunday, 9/16/12 via The Wall Street Journal]
September 26: Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton Drew Connection Between AQIM And Benghazi Attack. Two weeks after the Benghazi attack, on September 26, 2014, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the potential connection between AQIM and the Benghazi attack (emphasis added):
For some time, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries. Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions. And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi. This is a threat to the entire region and to the world, and most particularly, to the people in the region themselves who deserve better. They deserve better from their leaders and they deserve better from the international community. The United States is stepping up our counterterrorism efforts across the Maghreb and Sahel, and we're working with the Libyan Government and other partners to find those responsible for the attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi and bring them to justice. [United States Africa Command, 9/26/14]
Council On Foreign Relations: Some "Links" Between Attack And Militant Groups Exist, But Remain Inconclusive. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, officials noted possible links between Libyan militants and the extremist groups in 2012:
Clinton and the former head of Africa Command, General Carter Ham, are among senior U.S. officials who said there were "links" between AQIM and the Libyan militants who attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September 2012, but these allegations have not been substantiated in subsequent reporting or unclassified investigations. [Council On Foreign Relations, 1/8/14]
Subsequent Investigations Have Noted Some Terror Ties But Have Not Found Broader Coordination Of Attacks
Gen. Carter Ham: Individual Attackers Have Links To Extremist Group, But "That Is Not To Say That It Was AQIM That Planned, Or Organized" Attack. In 2012, the former head of Africa Command, General Carter Ham, noted that some evidence linked the militants that carried out the attack in Benghazi to AQIM, but emphasized: "That is not to say that it was AQIM which planned, or organized or led the activity but clearly some of the individuals had some linkages." From Reuters:
The head of the U.S. military command in Africa said on Wednesday that some of the militants involved in the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya were linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"There is a growing network of violent extremist organizations and it appears to me very likely that some of the terrorists who participated in the attack in Benghazi have at least some linkages to AQIM," General Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, told reporters in Paris.
"That is not to say that it was AQIM which planned, or organized or led the activity but clearly some of the individuals had some linkages," he said. [Reuters, 11/14/12]
Senate Select Committee On Intelligence: There Is No Proof That "Any Group Or Person Exercised Overall Command And Control Of The Attacks." The bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation of the Benghazi attacks found that "It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate" and suggested that "attacks were likely put together in short order":
It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video, suggesting that these and other terrorist groups could conduct similar attacks with little advance warning. [Review Of The Terrorist Attacks On U.S. Facilities In Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1/15/14]
NY Times: Attack Likely Not "Meticulously Planned" Or Led By International Terror Networks. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reported that many of the attackers appeared to have been connected to local extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, but noted that there was no evidence of careful advance planning or of a connection to international terrorist networks:
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.
Mr. Abu Khattala had become well known in Benghazi for his role in the killing of a rebel general, and then for declaring that his fellow Islamists were insufficiently committed to theocracy. He made no secret of his readiness to use violence against Western interests. One of his allies, the leader of Benghazi's most overtly anti-Western militia, Ansar al-Shariah, boasted a few months before the attack that his fighters could "flatten" the American Mission. Surveillance of the American compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours before the assault started. [The New York Times, 12/28/13]
Evidence Of Any Direct Al Qaeda Coordination Remains Inconclusive ...
NY Times: Link Between "Purely Local Extremist Organizations" Involved In Attack And "Al Qaeda's International Terrorist Network" Is Tenuous. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick noted that much of the discussion about the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack appears "to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda's international terrorist network." Based on "months of investigation" and "extensive interviews," Kirkpatrick reported that there is no evidence that clearly links the individuals who carried out the Benghazi attack to al Qaeda:
But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda's international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker's boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault. [The New York Times, 12/28/13]
NY Times: "Americans Are Often Careless With The Term 'Al Qaeda.'" The relentless campaign to insist that al Qaeda was responsible for the terrorist attacks in Benghazi undermines the public's understanding of that terrorist group and the role that local extremist groups play in international relations, the New York Times editorial board explained:
Americans are often careless with the term "Al Qaeda," which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden, that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.
Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with Al Qaeda's international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making. [The New York Times, 12/30/13]
... And Terrorists' Involvement In Attack Does Not Negate Connection To YouTube Video
Early CIA Intelligence Used By Administration Made Video Connection. The final draft of talking points from the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis, written two days after the attacks, determined that "the currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo," which like many areas in the Middle East had erupted in response to the anti-Islam video:
The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations. [Media Matters, 6/12/14; Media Matters, 5/6/14]
Senate Select Committee On Intelligence: "Some Intelligence Suggests" Attacks Were Put Together Following Protests Over Video. The bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation of the Benghazi attacks found that "some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video:
Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video, suggesting that these and other terrorist groups could conduct similar attacks with little advance warning. [Review Of The Terrorist Attacks On U.S. Facilities In Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1/15/14]
NY Times: Attack Was "Fueled In Large Part" By Anger At Anti-Islam Video. The New York Times' Kirkpatrick reported that many of the attackers appeared to have been connected to extremist group Answar al-Sharia, but noted that the assault appeared to be an opportunistic terror attack, "fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam":
Soon scores, if not hundreds, of others were racing to the scene. Some arrived with guns, some with cameras. The attackers had posted sentries at Venezia Road, adjacent to the compound, to guard their rear flank, but they let pass anyone trying to join the mayhem. Witnesses said young men rushing inside had left empty pickup trucks from Ansar al-Shariah, but also all the other big militias ostensibly allied with the government.
There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers. A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him. Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.
Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah. Mr. Abu Khattala's presence and leadership were evident. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as "sheikh" and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound. [The New York Times, 12/28/13]
Independent Investigation: "No Efforts By The White House Or Any Other Executive Branch Entities To 'Cover-Up' Facts"
Senate Select Committee On Intelligence: Administration Relied On CIA Intelligence That Was Initially Based on Local Press Accounts. The administration relied on CIA intelligence to inform its initial public statements about the Benghazi attacks, the Senate Investigation noted, and the intelligence community's initial assessment was largely based on local press accounts -- many of which noted the connection to the video:
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the IC received numerous reports, both classified and unclassified, which provided contradictory accounts that there were demonstrations at the Temporary Mission Facility. In some cases, these intelligence reports -- which were disseminated widely in the Intelligence Community -- contained references to press reports on protests that were simply copied into intelligence products. ["Review of the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi Libya, September 11-12, 2012," U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1/15/14]
Senate Select Committee On Intelligence: "There Were No Efforts By The White House Or Any Other Executive Branch Entities To 'Cover-Up' Facts Or Make Alterations For Political Purposes." The Senate Committee on Intelligence review determined there was no effort by the administration to cover-up or alter the facts for political purposes:
The Majority concludes that the interagency coordination process on the talking points followed normal, but rushed coordination procedures and that there were no efforts by the White House or any other Executive Branch entities to "cover-up" facts or make alterations for political purposes. Indeed, former CIA Director David Petraeus testified to the Committee on November 16, 2012, "They went through the normal process that talking points-unclassified public talking points-go through." In fact, the purpose of the National Security Council (NSC) is to coordinate the many national security agencies of the government, especially when information about a terrorist attack is flowing in and being analyzed quickly-and the NSC used this role appropriately in the case of the talking points coordination. Furthermore, such coordination processes were also standardized, often at the urging of Congress, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the explicit goal of reducing information "stovepipes" between and among agencies. [Review Of The Terrorist Attacks On U.S. Facilities In Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1/15/14]