Nearly 16 months after the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, the details about the perpetrators, their tactics and their motives continue to get spun, bounced and reinterpreted like a political pingpong ball.
The latest player was The New York Times, which over the weekend ran a detailed article about what Libyan militias think happened during the attack under a sweeping headline that critics claimed appeared bent on politically absolving former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The newspaper unequivocally asserted its reporters found “no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.”
But current and former U.S. officials, congressional sources and outside analysts briefed on the attack told The Washington Times on Monday that the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment about al Qaeda’s links to the Benghazi tragedy has not changed.
The consensus, they said, remains today, as it has for more than a year, that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda and its evolving North African affiliates executed the attack, which was preceded by some degree of planning despite being launched during a spontaneous opportunity that presented itself on the 11th anniversary of al Qaeda’s horrific Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
“The intelligence community has not changed its position from Day One as far as its position of al Qaeda and its involvement in the attack,” Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland, Georgia Republican and a key member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a telephone interview Monday. “As far as the intelligence community goes, they still understand that it was definitely al Qaeda-linked.”
The CIA on Monday pointedly stayed on the sidelines of the latest dispute and refused to address The Times’ assessment. But those briefed by the agency repeatedly over the past year unleashed fury at the New York newspaper.
Mr. Westmoreland said The New York Times evidently spoke with many militants and other sources on the ground inside Libya for its article, but he got “kind of a shock” that it appeared the paper was making assertions without having interviewed any of the U.S. intelligence officials on the ground at the CIA annex in Benghazi when it came under attack last year.
Those officials testified in October during a hearing of the House Intelligence subcommittee on oversight and investigations. “The reality of it is, you can tell more about what people think if you’re listening to them when they don’t know you’re listening,” said Mr. Westmoreland, who is chairman of the subcommittee.
In essence, the congressman said, he trusts the testimony of intelligence sources who were in Benghazi before and during the attack more than any recollection by militants claiming to have knowledge of what occurred.
Although transcripts of the testimony provided by intelligence officials during the October hearing remain classified, Mr. Westmoreland said that “from their observation, it was a planned attack.”
“These guys just saw that the attackers had at least some type of training, or coordinated movements about where to go and what each person was going to do when they were on the ground,” Mr. Westmoreland said. “So from that standpoint, it was a coordinated attack.”
Furthermore, he said, the overall assessment provided to the committee by the intelligence community “just leads you to believe, or to know that [the attackers] were al Qaeda-related.”
Mr. Westmoreland’s assessment dovetailed with comments Sunday by Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and the intelligence committee’s chairman.
Although some Republican lawmakers have been accused of aggressively politicizing the Benghazi attack as a way to smear the Obama administration and tarnish Mrs. Clinton’s record as secretary of state, some Democrats also have criticized the story in The New York Times.