That’s a topic that reportedly drew some attention on Capitol Hill last week, as former CIA Director David Petraeus testified in closed-door briefings with lawmakers. In a story on the proceedings, Reuters issued this sum-up:

Former CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress on Friday that he and the spy agency had sought to make clear from the outset that September’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, involved an al Qaeda affiliate, lawmakers said.

Very careful readers of the Los Angeles Times may experience confusion. An Oct. 19 story in that newspaper, after all, sported this headline: “No evidence found of Al Qaeda role in Libya attack.” A key passage from the story by Ken Dilanian and Shashank Bengali:

Republicans have zeroed in on possible Al Qaeda ties to the Sept. 11 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and have criticized the Obama administration for not saying early on that it was an act of terrorism. But after five weeks of investigation, U.S. intelligence agencies say they have found no evidence of Al Qaeda participation.

“Participation,” “involvement,” “link” — all these are technical terms of great importance in covering al-Qaeda and terrorism, especially in the Benghazi context.

When asked about the apparent contradiction between the Los Angeles Times piece and all the reports of al-Qaeda “involvement,” Dilanian responds:

As I understand it, Petraeus didn’t say it was an al-Qaeda attack, he said it was a terrorist attack, which was never really in dispute, because even if it had been a protest, when you burn down the consulate and kill Americans, you have become terrorists. I just got off the phone with a U.S. intelligence source, who confirmed to me that the CIA does not consider Benghazi an attack by al-Qaeda. I am told there are tenuous links between some of the attackers and AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], the North African affiliate. There may have been a few AQIM members on the scene. What we said was that there was no evidence al-Qaeda ordered the attack, and that remains the case. The problem here is that people loosely throw around the term “al-Qaeda” as a shorthand for extremists and sympathizers. And in fairness, there aren’t AQ membership cards, so there is room for interpretation.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) addressed these mushy nuances in a release dated Sept. 28:

As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa’ida.

Two lessons here: 1) When you have an acronym as cool as ODNI, you’d better have a sophisticated way of punctuating “al-Qaeda”; and 2) ODNI outlines some layers of separation from al-Qaeda, to the degree that the mention of “al-Qa’ida” appears meaningless.

“MeriJ,” a commenter on the Erik Wemple Blog, e-mails this primer on al-Qaeda classification:

1. terrorist attack does not = al Qaeda

2. extremist muslim group does not = al Qaeda

3. Knowing people in al Qaeda and liking al Qaeda does not = al Qaeda affiliate

4. al Qaeda affiliated people in Benghazi joining the attack does not = al Qaeda attack


5. terrorist attack does not = planned attack

6. terrorist attack planned that very day does not = planned in advance for 9/11 (even if they might have planned to attack in the future anyhow)

Far too much finesse, in other words, for the media to manage as the Benghazi story continues to dominate the newstream.