By Julian Pecquet - 01/14/14 06:00 AM EST
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that key conclusions of a recent New York Times investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack are wrong.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) rejected the Times’s conclusion that al Qaeda wasn’t responsible for the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. She also took issue with the notion that the Libya strike was sparked by a U.S.-made anti-Islam video online.
She also disputed the notion that the Sept. 11, 2012, assault evolved from a protest against the video, which was widely disseminated by Islamic clerics shortly before the attack.
“It doesn’t jibe with me,” she said.
The months-long Times investigation, which was published late last month, “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.” It concluded, after talking to actors on the ground, that “contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”
A spokesman for the senator took issue with The Hill’s characterization of Feinstein’s comments.
“When Senator Feinstein said ‘loosely affiliated’ she clearly was referring to groups not directly connected to (or taking orders from) core AQ in Pakistan — which was essentially the conclusion of The New York Times as well,” said Brian Weiss. “So to say she ‘rejected’ the conclusion of The New York Times is an overstatement.”
Still, Feinstein’s comments represent a departure from the Times’s reporting. The Dec. 28, 2013, article pinned the blame on Ansar al-Sharia, which it deemed a “purely local extremist” organization and “Benghazi’s most overtly anti-Western militia.”
Critics say the Times was overly reliant on militants’ assertion that they had no link to al Qaeda.
They point out that an August 2012 report from the research division of the Library of Congress found that Ansar al-Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya.” And they fault the news outlet for making no mention of the suspected role played by other groups that have known ties with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, despite previous reporting in the Times itself.
A spokeswoman for The New York Times said the report says groups involved were “sympathetic to Al Qaeda's goals.”
“The article makes clear that the attack was led by groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda's goals but states there is 'no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault,' ” NYT Communications Director Danielle Rhoades Ha said in an emailed statement. “The article also explains that many of the attackers were motivated by anger at the American-made video denigrating Islam, which they believed was set for its debut on 9/11.”
The report has rekindled debate about Benghazi on Capitol Hill. The incident is likely to be a major national security issue in this year’s midterms and the 2016 presidential campaign, especially if Hillary Clinton —who was the secretary of State at the time of the attack — decides to run.
“Of course Secretary Clinton was in charge at the time, and you know there are just now a lot of rumors going and pushing about her running for president in 2016,” House Intelligence panel member Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) told Fox News days after the report was published. “So I think [the Times is] already laying the groundwork.”
Other members of the panel did not impugn the Times’s motives, but said its conclusions were flawed.
Asked what the report got wrong, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told Fox News the day after the report was published: “That al Qaeda was not involved in this.”
“There was some level of pre-planning; we know that,” Rogers said. “There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al Qaeda and their affiliates in Libya; we know that.”
“I agree with Mike that, however, the intelligence indicates that al Qaeda was involved,” colleague Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), agreed on the same show. “But there are also plenty of people and militias that were unaffiliated with al Qaeda that were involved.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose panel is scheduled to continue pursuing its investigation into the Benghazi attack in 2014, has ripped the Times’s reporting. Issa has been a main target of Democratic pushback, with some members accusing him of launching a partisan witch hunt to hurt Clinton with little regard for the truth.
“We have seen no evidence that the video was widely seen in Benghazi, a very isolated area, or that it was a leading cause,” Issa said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “What we do know is that [the Benghazi attack] was not an accident.”
He said there was “a group there that was involved that’s linked to al Qaeda.”
The Times has received some high-profile support from Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA. He told CBS that the Times report had “the ring of truth to it.”
“These kinds of events are a lot more nuanced than we would like them to be looking back at them in retrospect,” he said, adding that the Times investigation “kind of bears ... out” his initial assessment that the attack was carried out by a group that was “like-minded or low-end affiliated” with al Qaeda.
This report was updated at 12:27 p.m. to include a statement from The New York Times Company.