Expert Raises Doubts Over ‘Smoking Gun’ Benghazi Emails

Less than a day after conservatives definitively called a set of emails from the State Department hard evidence that the Obama administration misled the public over the Sept. attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, the accuracy of the emails’ content is coming under scrutiny.

While many on the right have labeled the email, which says that the Ansar al-Sharia militia had claimed credit for the assault in Benghazi on Facebook and Twitter, as a
smoking gun,” the truth may be more complex than that. Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, extensively tracks jihadist groups’ presence on the Internet. In an interview with CNN, Zelin indicated that he’s seen no evidence that backs up the email’s claim that Ansar al-Sharia had taken responsibility for the attack:

Zelin, who said his RSS feed sends him any new statement from the group, provided CNN with a copy of [his RSS] feed. It shows no Facebook update between September 8 and September 12, when a posting late that afternoon first referenced the attack. Zelin notes that the posting referred to a news conference the group had held earlier that day in Benghazi in which it denied any role in the assault on the consulate, while sympathizing with the attackers.

Accompanying a posting of the news conference on YouTube, a commentary says that the attack on the consulate was “a wave of rage for Allah and his Prophet, it came from the Muslim youths.”

The posting continues: “Ansar al-Sharia brigade did not officially participate as a military body, nor received any orders directed from the brigade.”

According to Zelin, the militia’s Twitter feed likewise did not display any posts between Sept. 8-12. He has also stated via his own Twitter account that there have been instances in the past where posts deleted on social media sites have been captured by his RSS. While there is also a group known as Ansar al-Sharia based out of the Libyan city of Derna, they maintain no social media presence whatsoever.

Zelin’s evidence calls into question the accuracy of the State Department’s initial email, and leaves unanswered the question of what the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli saw to tell State that it had seen claims of responsibility. In any event, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday dismissed the claim that such a Facebook post would count as a new facet to the investigation, as “[p]osting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence.”

The new doubts raise once more the issue of how clouded the initial indications coming out of Benghazi were at the time of the attack. The right-wing argument from Sept. 19 on has been one that finds the idea of an attack being precipitated by an anti-Islamic video and being a terrorist attack as being mutually exclusive. Likewise, it depicts any change in the official story from the Obama administration as being due to intentional misleading. However, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the GOP narrative over-simplifies the highly complicated procedure of analyzing intelligence.