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US officials: Benghazi emails reveal little new about attack response

The White House received emails from the State Department that said the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia had used social media to claim responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi within hours of last month’s assault, officials said Wednesday.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

The White House received emails from the State Department that said the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia had used social media to claim responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi within hours of last month’s assault, American officials said Wednesday.

But Ansar al-Sharia disavowed the claim -- which appeared on Facebook and Twitter -- the following day. It was one of many conflicting accounts to emerge in the chaotic hours after the attack in the eastern Libyan city.

When asked about the emails, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said that “posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence” and added that this “underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time, and continued for some time, to be.”

The assault, which came on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The emails, called “op reports,” were among hundreds that poured into government agencies that night, officials told NBC News. All of these messages had to be analyzed and assessed before decisions could be made or action taken, officials said.

"These emails are unclassified from the operation center and go to hundreds, if not thousands of people,” a White House official told NBC News.

“They basically say: we are under fire,” the official said.

'The process is dynamic'
Multiple terror groups often claim credit for the same attack, which makes it nearly impossible to draw conclusions immediately from such intelligence reports, officials said.

U.S. officials told NBC News that the public emergence of the emails added little that was new to the understanding of the U.S. response to the attack.

"Intelligence professionals follow the information wherever it leads to build a coherent picture of what's being assessed. Each report is carefully considered and everything credible is used to try to fill in missing pieces of the narrative,” a U.S. intelligence official told NBC News.

“The process is dynamic. As new reporting comes in, you review, reassess, and revise as appropriate," the official said.

The emails, which have been obtained by NBC News, were also sent to the FBI and other government agencies.

The messages were first reported by Reuters, but administration officials on Wednesday played down the news agency report’s suggestion that the emails showed that senior White House officials knew the identity of those behind the attacks.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the emails were “open-source, unclassified” messages.

“There were emails about all sorts of information that was becoming available in the aftermath of the attack,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“There was a variety of information coming in,” Carney added. “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.”

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials ultimately acknowledged the incident was a "terrorist" attack carried out by militants with suspected links to al-Qaida affiliates or sympathizers.

The attack as it happened
The brief emails also show how U.S. diplomats described the attack, even as it was still under way, to Washington.

The first of three emails, sent at 4:05 p.m. ET on Sept. 11, reported that the consulate was under attack.

"The Regional Security Officer reports the diplomatic mission is under attack. Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well. Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four COM personnel are in the compound safe haven.  The 17th of February militia is providing security support.

"The Operations Center will provide updates as available."

Another email was sent at 4:54 p.m. ET, saying the attack had stopped.

"Embassy Tripoli reports the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi has stopped and the compound has been cleared. A response team in on site attempting to locate COM personnel.”

At 6:07 p.m. ET, another email was sent, saying Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility:

“SUBJECT: Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.”

“Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."

U.S. officials first laid blame for the attack on specific militant groups or possible links to al-Qaida or its affiliates when intelligence officials publicly alleged that on Sept. 28.

There were indications that extremists with possible al-Qaida connections were involved, but also evidence that the attacks could have erupted spontaneously, they said, adding that government experts wanted to be cautious about pointing fingers prematurely.