Just over two hours after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began on Sep. 11, the White House Situation Room was notified that a militant group with connections to al Qaeda had claimed responsibility, undermining claims by the Obama administration and the media that a video was initially the suspected cause.
Reuters reports that the email message was headlined "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack." It read, in part: "Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli." One of the recipients listed on the email was the White House Situation Room.
A document produced by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security on Sep. 12th, based on public media reports, mentions Ansar al-Sharia but says, "There has been no substantiated claim of responsibility for the attacks, though media reports suggest members of Ansar al-Sharia participated in the attack." The document goes on to say that Ansar al-Sharia has an affiliation with al Qaeda.
The administration's inability to substantiate the claim of responsibility might explain its reluctance to call the attack "terrorism" in the early days. It does not explain why the White House sent surrogates Jay Carney and UN Ambassdor Susan Rice out repeatedly to insist the attack was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video.
On September 14th alone, White House Press secretary mentioned the video more than a dozen times. He was pointedly asked three times if he meant to connect the video to the Benghazi attack and said (the third time): "We have no evidence at this time to suggest otherwise, that there was a pre-planned or ulterior instigation behind that unrest."
But the White House did have information, almost immediately, to suggest a militia aligned with al Qaeda might be responsible for the attack. The question is why that possibility was not raised at all while the other possibility, outrage over a video, was raised dozens of times that first week.
Is it only a coincidence that the White House's favored explanation is by far the less politically explosive of the two?