April 3, 2014
UN Ambassador Susan Rice (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The New York Times isn’t budging in the face of fresh challenges to its landmark December 2013 investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks. “We continue to stand by our story,” writes New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. “Neither yesterday’s testimony nor any other information that we’re aware of contradicts the story’s detailed description of the terror suspects involved in the attack.”

That testimony came from Mike Morell, a former top CIA official who himself has come under scrutiny of late over his role in editing the famous “talking points” produced by the U.S. government in advance of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice’s disastrous account of the attacks on the Sunday talk shows just days after Benghazi. Four U.S. personnel died in the assault.

In an appearance yesterday before the House Intelligence committee, Morell spoke on the role of al-Qaeda in Benghazi. His prepared testimony addressed the matter directly:

To this day, the analysts still believe that extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attacks – that these were terrorist attacks — that the attacks were conducted with little preplanning. . . .

Morell noted that on Sept. 15, one day before Rice’s Sunday talkathon, the CIA produced a piece of Benghazi analysis in cooperation with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). It “reinforced” earlier intelligence that “extremists with ties to [al-Qaeda] participated in the attack,” noted Morell in his prepared statement.

So just how does this conflict with the New York Times’s big story? Significantly, according to “Weekly Standard’s” Stephen Hayes and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers:

 

The New York Times story, published on Dec. 28, 2013, under the byline of David D. Kirkpatrick, was a six-chapter affair based not on leaks from intelligence agencies and Beltway types, but on interviews with people in and around Benghazi. As opposed to attempting to prove or disprove an assumption about the provenance of the mayhem on that night, Kirkpatrick started from a blank slate. Here are two paragraphs that help frame his conclusions:

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.

An investigation that lasted months, Kirkpatrick writes, “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi.”

And Kirkpatrick challenges a statement that Rogers had given to Fox News, about how the attacks were a “an Al Qaeda-led event.” Not quite, he wrote:

But Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

That’s the essence of the New York Times’s reporting — sure, al-Qaeda sympathizers may have poured into the U.S. diplomatic compound to take part in the hostilities. But this wasn’t an effort coordinated from afar by al-Qaeda’s nerve center. The notion of a pile-on by Libyan militants on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, is one of the themes of Kirkpatrick’s piece. Following the breach of the U.S. diplomatic installation, he notes, “Soon scores, if not hundreds, of others were racing to the scene. Some arrived with guns, some with cameras.” As noted by the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin in January, the State Department concluded that Benghazi was not the work of “core al Qaeda.”

On Jan. 10, the State Department designated militia groups Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah as terrorist organizations for being “involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets,” including Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah is under the leadership of Abu Sufian bin Qumu, who “trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan and later worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, where the al-Qaeda leader lived for three years,” as reported in The Post.

So what does that make Qumu’s group? An “al-Qaeda affiliate”? “Al-Qaeda-connected”? “Non-core al-Qaeda”? And did his group lead the attack or just join in? Here’s The Post’s Adam Goldman on that matter:

Witnesses have told American officials that Qumu’s men were in Benghazi before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, according to the officials. It’s unclear whether they were there as part of a planned attack or out of happenstance. The drive from Darnah to Benghazi takes several hours.

As State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a reporter in January, terrorist groups “don’t give out T-shirts or membership cards, as you know.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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