Fox News has continued to accuse President Obama of covering up the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, now claiming emails that allegedly linked the attack to a terrorist group challenge the administration's story. But the information being used by Fox appears to be unreliable, proving the point that information released in the middle of an attack needs to be corroborated.
CBS News and other outlets released State Department emails sent during the Benghazi attack, which reported that militia group Ansar al-Sharia had allegedly claimed responsibility. Fox seized on the emails to claim that the administration knew about the group's participation in the raid and therefore was hiding the truth by discussing the influencethat an anti-Islam video had on the raid. To back up the attack, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney appeared on the October 24 edition of America's Newsroom and claimed that “it is unusual for Al Qaeda-related groups to claim responsibility for attacks that they are not involved in”:
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded to the story in an October 24 press conference, explaining that "[p]osting something on Facebook in and of itself is not evidence." Fox responded by accusing Clinton of “dismissing the significance” of the emails in an on-screen graphic.
But Clinton is right: Terrorist organizations often claim responsibility for attacks they did not commit. In fact, the information linking the attack to the Libyan group Ansar al-Sharia is reportedly wrong.
In an October 25 post, Mother Jones' Adam Serwer reported that the information contained in the emails appear to be wrong. Serwer wrote that Ansar al-Sharia never posted on Facebook, nor did it claim credit for the attack:
Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi didn't post about the attack on its Facebook or Twitter page until September 12, the day after the attack. They expressed their approval of the incident, but they didn't take credit; they did imply members of the group might have been involved, according to Zelin, stating, “Katibat Ansar al-Sharia [in Benghazi] as a military did not participate formally/officially and not by direct orders.” The statement also implicitly justifies the attack by alluding to the anti-Islam video linked to unrest in other parts of the Middle East, saying, “We commend the Libyan Muslim people in Benghazi [that were] against the attack on the [Muslim] Prophet [Muhammad].”
CNN's national security and intelligence blog also reported that the information linking Ansar al-Sharia to the attack may be inaccurate.
The conflicting reports show that Clinton was right that information shared across social media and intelligence gathered during an attack can be unreliable. In a blog about the emails, NPR reporter Mark Memmott pointed out that “terrorist organizations often quickly claim responsibility after incidents such as the Benghazi attack -- sometimes when they were not actually involved.” He added that evidence such as these emails are “among many pieces of sometimes conflicting evidence.”
In an October 25 CNN op-ed by former CIA military analyst Tara Maller wrote that claims like those made by the group Ansar al-Sharia “need to be corroborated” :
People have questioned why the administration didn't immediately report that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. But we don't know whether analysts had enough credible intelligence on hand at the time to be absolutely sure of the nature of the attack. Reports indicate that the intelligence community's evaluations evolved in the following days and weeks as information came in, and policymakers were briefed as assessments changed and solidified. This is common practice.
Sometimes multiple groups claim responsibility after attacks; obviously claims of responsibility are often false. It's also possible that the attackers had ties to multiple groups, or had different motives. Expecting policymakers to publicly examine and go through every conflicting piece of intelligence collected in the hours before and after an attack would be unreasonable and potentially even damaging to national security.