The Real Libya Story: There Is No Story

There's plenty of confusion, but still no evidence to suggest the Obama Administration was ever engaged in a Benghazi cover-up.

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It was, from the start, about as hard an intelligence problem as you can find. The date was September 11, and the CIA was stretched thin, monitoring anti-American protests in no fewer than 54 countries that day, according to Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper. Post-Gaddafi Libya itself was still chaotic, caught up in the fog of war, and indeed Ambassador Chris Stevens, at great personal risk, had journeyed to his old Arab Spring-era stomping ground in Benghazi to assess the situation himself. Still, Clapper recently told an annual conference of intelligence professionals that there was no warning to Stevens or anyone else that he was about to be targeted by an organized extremist attack.

So in the ensuing days, the fog lifted only very gradually. The intelligence community did not see a clear way to explain the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans. And as the probe advanced they began shifting their assessment dramatically. Four days after the attacks, on September 15, intel briefers sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice off to tape the Sunday talk shows with talking points that suggested Stevens' death was the result of "spontaneous" protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. And that's what Rice said on CBS's Face the Nation "based on the best information we have to date," as she put it. Rice added, however, that "soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that -- in that effort with heavy weapons."

"It was clear from the outset that a group of people gathered that evening. A key question early on was whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants," says an intelligence official involved in the Benghazi assessment. "It took time -- until that next week -- to sort through varied and sometimes conflicting accounts to understand the group's overall composition."

By the following week, however, the DNI came to believe that there had been no protest at all. "That was genuine fog of war issue," said one intelligence professional involved in the Benghazi assessments. "Press reports at the time indicated there had been. It took about a week or so to iron that out." On September 28, Shawn Turner, spokesman for Clapper's office, said in a statement that as U.S. intelligence learned more about the attack, "we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."

To supporters of Mitt Romney in the chattering classes and in the House of Representatives, where an investigative committee has been hard at work probing the attacks and, apparently, leaking information, there is a lot more going on here. They see a deliberate effort by the Obama Administration to play down evidence that new al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups were at work killing Americans. After all, one of the president's big talking points in a tough election race is that he's killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al Qaeda.

It sounds very plausible. There's only one problem with that view: No evidence has surfaced so far to support the idea that the Obama Administration deceived the public deliberately. On Wednesday a new spate of stories emerged, quoting unclassified emails sent to the White House and State Department only hours after the attacks that indicate the extremist Libyan militia Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility. "Smoking gun!" Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger, tweeted. "The White House cover story -- namely that CIA got it all wrong and the White House (in urging us to believe the murder of four Americans was the result of a video riot gone bad) was telling us what it knew, when it knew -- has been severely undercut," she added on her blog. "Three e-mails sent to the White House within two hours of the attack identify it as a terrorist operation and inform the White House that local jihadists with al-Qaida connections claimed responsibility."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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