Republican critics of the Obama administration’s evolving accounts of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 imply that there was early certainty in the US intelligence community that it was an attack staged by an al-Qaeda affiliate. In fact, the theories of who was behind the attack were multiple and conflicting for days afterward.
The Open Source Center serves US intelligence in conveying press reports, and translating some of them, to analysts. They are then released to the public via e.g. university libraries. Here are the reports included by OSC for September 11-12 in the aftermath of that attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The press reports, including interviews with Libyan officials on the ground, would have shaped analysts’ perceptions, along with internal emails such as those recently acquired by CNN:
Wednesday, September 12, 2012 T00:01:10 TRIPOLI, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) — One American staff member from the U.S. consulate in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi was killed on Tuesday night after hundreds of protesters, angered by an alleged U.S.-made movie that insults the Prophet Mohammed, broke into the consulate building, a Libya’s interior ministry official said.
Wanis Sharef, an assistant to Libya’s interior minister, told Xinhua that the diplomats of the U.S. mission have been evacuated to avoid clashes with the protesters.
Sharef confirmed that one person from the consulate was killed, but did not say clearly whether the dead was a diplomat or not.
Meanwhile, reports from Washington have by now confirmed one death in the consulate attack in Benghazi, but it neither revealed the casualty’s identity.
At the same time, local media in Libya said that another U.S. official might also have been injured.
This account by the Chinese wire service Xinhua depends on a briefing by the Libyan interior minister, who presumably should have had good information about Benghazi (the Interior Ministry in the Arab World is sort of like the US FBI). This report came out shortly after midnight on Sept. 12, just after the attack.
AFP, Wednesday, September 12, 2012 T11:28:34: “The American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three officials were killed when a mob attacked the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
“The ambassador was killed along with three other officials,” said Wanis al-Sharif, the Deputy Minister of the Interior. Stevens’ death in Tuesday’s attack was confirmed in a tweet by Mustafa Abu Shagur, the Deputy Prime Minister.
Stevens, a career officer with the US foreign service, had been in the country for less than four months after taking up his post in the capital Tripoli in May.
Fawzi Wanis, who heads the High Security Commission in Benghazi, confirmed that Stevens was at the consulate when it was attacked.
The ambassador was killed when an armed mob protesting against a film deemed offensive to Islam attacked the US mission, just hours after Islamists also stormed Washington’s embassy in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
The film at the center of the anti-US protests was made by an Israeli-American who describes Islam as a “cancer” and depicts the Prophet Mohammed sleeping with women, the Wall Street Journal reported.”
Note that the Agence France Presse correspondent in Libya thought that there was a protest in Benghazi against the ‘film’ “The Innocence of Muslims.”
Libya: Jihadist Websites Claim US Envoy’s Murder ‘Response’ to Al-Libi Death
Unattributed report: “Libya: US Ambassador’s Death, Vengeance for Al-Libi, Websites Linked to the Al-Qa’ida Galaxy Claim”
Wednesday, September 12, 2012 T14:05
Document Type: OSC Translated Text
Rome, 12 September — The death of the US ambassador in the assault on Benghazi yesterday is “a response by the Ansar al-Sharia militia to the confirmation of the death of Abu al-Libi,” the Al-Qa’ida number two, that was provided by Ayman al-Zawahiri yesterday, Al-Qa’ida-ist websites claim. The United States confirmed his death on 5 June. In the evening a bomb went off precisely in the US delegation’s premises in Benghazi.
(Description of Source: Rome ANSA.it in Italian — Website of Associated National Press Agency featuring Italian domestic and international political and economic news; URL: http://www.ansa.it)
Note that this Italian report of something on ‘al-Qaeda web sites’ was disseminated at 2 pm on the Wednesday after the attacks, and that ‘al-Qaeda websites’ say a lot of things.
AFP Wednesday, September 12, 2012 T15:24:00 “Libyan authorities on Wednesday pointed a finger of blame at supporters of ousted leader Moammar Qaddafi’s regime and at Al-Qaeda for a deadly attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.
“What happened yesterday coincided with September 11 and has a clear significance,” Mohamed al-Megaryef, president of Libya’s highest political authority, the elected General National Congress, told reporters in Tripoli.
He was referring to Al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001.
“We categorically refuse to allow our lands to be used to mount cowardly and dirty revenge attacks,” he said.
Washington’s envoy to Libya and three other Americans were killed when an armed mob outraged over a low-budget movie mocking Islam late on Tuesday attacked the American consulate in Benghazi with rocket-propelled grenades.
Megaryef also pointed a finger of blame at the ousted regime, saying such actions were aimed at sabotaging Libya’s moves towards democracy in the wake of three decades of Qaddafi’s autocratic rule.”
So if you listened to the elected president of Libya, the attack on the consulate was done neither by a protest crowd nor by an al-Qaeda affiliate, but by left-overs (tahalleb) of the deposed Gaddafi regime.
Given this wide range of accounts, and given what wire services reporting from Libya were saying, confusion in Washington was all but guaranteed.