Buried at the bottom of page A5 in the New York Times International section Thursday: "E-Mails Offer Glimpse at What U.S. Knew in First Hours After Attack in Libya." Intelligence reporter Eric Schmitt's text was as mild as his story's headline on the matter of the leaked emails, which proved the White House had intelligence suggesting the attacks in Libya were planned terrorism, not a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muhammad clip on YouTube, as the president maintained a full two weeks after the attacks.
Schmitt provided some cover for the president by suggesting a "lag between turning often contradictory and incomplete field reporting into a finished assessment" and showed the administration and intelligence officials "trying to put into context the e-mails sent by the State Department operations center...."
A series of three leaked e-mails sent by State Department officials beginning shortly after the fatal attack began on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, last month -- including one that alerted the White House Situation Room that a militant group had claimed responsibility for it -- stirred new debate on Wednesday about the Obama administration’s shifting positions on the cause of the attack.
The first e-mail, sent about a half-hour after the assault began, said the State Department’s regional security officer in Tripoli, Libya, had reported that the mission in Benghazi was under attack, and that “20 armed people fired shots.”
An e-mail 49 minutes later said the firing at the mission “has stopped and the compound has been cleared,” while a response team was trying to find people.
In the next message, 1 hour 13 minutes after the second, the embassy in Tripoli reported that a local militant group, Ansar al-Shariah, had claimed responsibility through postings on Facebook and Twitter.
In the hours after the Benghazi attack, American spy agencies intercepted electronic communications from Ansar al-Shariah fighters bragging to an operative with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda’s North African arm. But Ansar al-Shariah has publicly denied having anything to do with the attack.
Intelligence officials say the gap between the talking points and the contemporaneous field reports illustrates the lag between turning often contradictory and incomplete field reporting into a finished assessment.
Administration and intelligence officials made that point again on Wednesday in trying to put into context the e-mails sent by the State Department operations center to scores of officials at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House.
“You know, 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 some time to be,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington.