Officials at the White House and State Department were advised two hours after attackers assaulted the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that an Islamic terrorist group had claimed credit for the attack, official e-mails show, according to Reuters news service and other media outlets.
The e-mails, obtained by Reuters and CBS News, specifically mention that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks. The brief e-mails also show how U.S. diplomats described the attack, even as it was still under way, to Washington.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi assault, which President Obama and other U.S. officials ultimately acknowledged was a "terrorist" attack carried out by militants with suspected links to al-Qaeda affiliates or sympathizers.
Spokesmen for the White House and State Department had no immediate response to requests for comments on the e-mails, according to Reuters reporter Mark Hosenball.
The records obtained by Reuters consist of three e-mails dispatched by the State Department's Operations Center to multiple government offices, including addresses at the White House, Pentagon, intelligence community and FBI, on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
The first e-mail, timed at 4:05 p.m. ET -- or 10:05 p.m. Benghazi time, and about 20 to 30 minutes after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission allegedly began -- carried the subject line "U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack" and the notation "SBU", meaning "Sensitive But Unclassified."
The text said the State Department's regional security office had reported that the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was "under attack. Embassy in Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well."
The message continued: "Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi,and four ... personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support."
A second e-mail, headed "Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi" and timed 4:54 p.m. Washington time, said that the Embassy in Tripoli had reported that "the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared." It said a "response team" was at the site attempting to locate missing personnel.
A third e-mail, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.
"The message reported: "Embassy Tripoli reports the group claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."
While some information identifying recipients of this message was redacted from copies of the messages obtained by Reuters, a government source said that one of the addresses to which the message was sent was the White House Situation Room, the president's secure command post. Other addressees included intelligence and military units as well as one used by the FBI command center, the source said.
However, Obama administration spokesmen, including White House spokesman Jay Carney, citing an unclassified assessment prepared by the CIA, maintained for days that the attacks likely emerged from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim film. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice also blamed the attack on a protest against the film that turned violent, and President Obama told talk show host David Letterman that the attack was prompted by protests over the video as well.
The White House now says there was no protest outside the consulate when it was attacked, and that the attack appears to have been the work of unknown terrorists. State Department has declined to comment on the specifics until an investigation is not be completed, after the Nov. 6 presidential election.
While some administration officials did mention the possible involvement of "extremists," they did not lay blame on any specific militant groups or possible links to al-Qaeda or its affiliates until intelligence officials publicly alleged that on September 28.
U.S. intelligence officials have emphasized since shortly after the attack that early intelligence reporting about the attack was mixed. One U.S. intelligence official said that during the first classified briefing about Benghazi given to members of Congress, officials "carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time."