- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Congressional Republicans on Wednesday spotlighted a newly revealed email that shows Obama administration officials were told within hours of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that an al-Qaeda-inspired militant group had claimed responsibility for the assault.

After the White House and State Department downplayed the significance of the email Wednesday, Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte sent a letter to President Obama asking why U.S. officials “described the attack for days afterward as a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam video.”

“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,” the senators’ letter states. “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.”

Earlier Wednesday, administration officials said the email, which was first reported by Reuters, was just part of an initial scramble of communications about the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Hosting something on Facebook is not, in and of itself, evidence,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after the email was leaked to news outlets and posted online. “I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and contended for some time.”

Her assertion matched that of White House press secretary Jay Carney, who said “there were emails about all sorts of information that was coming available in the aftermath of the attack.” He noted that within hours of the email, Ansar al-Shariah “claimed that it had not been responsible — neither should be taken as fact.”

What did they know and when?

The Tunisian government said Wednesday that it had arrested a 28-year-old Tunisian man who is suspected to have participated in the consulate attack. An Interior Ministry spokesman told The Associated Press that Ali Harzi was being held in the nation’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia sits between Libya and Algeria in North Africa, where authorities regularly cite the threat of al Qaeda-inspired militants.

The State Department declined to comment on the extent to which Tunisian authorities are cooperating with U.S. and Libyan authorities investigating the Benghazi attack.

One U.S. intelligence official has described Mr. Harzi as a member of violent extremist networks in the region, according to an article by The Daily Beast, which first reported his arrest Tuesday.

The developments amplified an already politically charged debate over why the White House was initially unwilling to characterize the Benghazi attack as one carried out by Islamic extremists.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the new email undermines “any administration claim to have ever believed in good faith that [the attack occurred] in a ‘spontaneous reaction’ to a film trailer posted on the Internet.” He called on the president to release all intelligence reports and analyses about the attack.

Although Mr. Obama used the words “acts of terror” to describe the attack in prepared remarks Sept. 12, other administration officials maintained in ensuing days that the assault — by heavily armed men with mortar support — had grown out of a spontaneous protest against an American-made video disparaging Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

The Benghazi attack happened just hours after demonstrators had stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Although there has been no evidence of a similar protest preceding the attack in Benghazi, some in the intelligence community continue to say the incidents in Libya and Egypt are connected.

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