GOP seizes on leaked State Dept. emails to question White House Libya narrative

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday seized on newly leaked State Department emails, saying they raised questions about whether White House officials tried to cover up the nature of last month’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The emails, first reported by Reuters, show that the State Department told administration officials and the FBI within two hours of the attack on the consulate that the militant group Ansar al Sharia had claimed responsibility. 

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“This thing is getting more and more traction, more and more legs, and it’s getting uglier every day,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel, told Fox News on Wednesday. “And I think the thing we need to do is be honest with the American people — and say, here’s what we knew, here’s when we knew it, here’s what the president knew and when the president knew it.”

Administration officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, initially blamed the violence, which claimed four lives, including that of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, on Muslim anger over an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube.

White House later acknowledged that the attack was planned, and have denied GOP suggestions that the administration delayed acknowledging terrorist involvement for political reasons. Officials say their statements were based on the intelligence they received at that time and that they have been forthcoming with lawmakers and the public as details emerge about the attack.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told CNN on Wednesday that the leaked emails make no mention of any protests sparked by an anti-Islam video.

“What I believe happened is that somebody saw something that they thought was the way that they wanted to talk about it, versus what the facts on the ground were," Rogers said.

The trio of Senate hawks that have criticized the administration's response since the story broke also reacted to the email.

"These emails make clear that your Administration knew within two hours of the attack that it was a terrorist act and that Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group with links to Al-Qaeda, had claimed responsibility for it," Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote in a letter to Obama. "This latest revelation only adds to the confusion surrounding what you and your Administration knew about the attacks in Benghazi, when you knew it, and why you responded to those tragic events in the ways that you did.

"The American people have the right to know what information your Administration was receiving about the attacks in Benghazi once they began, when you received it, how you reacted to it, and why you and other members of your Administration continued for days after the attack to speak about it in ways that increasingly seem at odds with intelligence and other reporting that you had available to you. We urge you to address the American people directly on these and other vital questions that still surround the tragic murder of our fellow citizens last month in Libya."

But the White House dismissed the State Department emails as un-vetted memos that administration officials regularly receive throughout the day.

"There were emails about all sorts of information that was coming available in the aftermath of the attack,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney to reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. “The email you are referring to was an open source email referring to an assertion made on a social media site that everyone in this room has access to and knew about instantaneously.” 

“There was a variety of information coming in. The whole point of an intelligence community and what they do is to assess strands of information and make judgments about what happened and who was responsible,” he added.

Carney pointed out that an Ansar al Sharia Facebook posting claiming responsibility for the attack was widely known at the time and was denounced by the group's leadership soon after.

"This is an open source, unclassified email about a posting on a Facebook site,” Carney said. “I would also note that within a few hours the organization itself claimed that it had not been responsible. Neither should be taken as fact. That is why there is an investigation.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday warned against "cherry picking one story here or one document there" and told reporters that the Facebook claim "is not in and of itself evidence and I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time, and continued for some time to be." 

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the operations center that the emails came from "is responsible for providing fast-breaking news" but not analyzing it.

"As the secretary said today," she said, "this piece has to be seen in the larger mosaic."

Nuland said the 24-hour news cycle and the "political swirl" wouldn't jeopardize the integrity of the independent Accountability Review Board's investigation into the attack.

"You can think about the way the ARB operates much as you think about a sequestered jury if you will," she said. "They are separated from the larger process and they look at everything that we knew at the time, during and after. Their process is designed to have integrity in and of itself without reference to the current climate now."

Republicans for weeks have been accusing the White House of deliberately avoiding calling the assault a “terrorist attack” so as not to undermine the president's argument that he has al Qaeda on the run.

The group that initially claimed responsibility is loosely affiliated with al Qaeda, but the core terror group itself is not believed to have been involved.

The new emails all but guarantee that Republican lawmakers will press the issue of when administration officials learned details of the attack ahead of the election.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has launched an investigation into the attack, sending a sharp letter to President Obama last week questioning if administration officials had been aware of threats to the consulate and denied requests from diplomats in Libya for additional security.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has seized on the attack to paint the president as weak on foreign policy and has also charged the administration with waiting too long to acknowledge it was a terrorist attack. Romney, though, declined to attack Obama on the issue during Monday's final presidential debate, which was centered on foreign policy.

Updated at 12:46 and 1:17 p.m.