White House Was Told Benghazi was a Terrorist Attack Two Hours Into the Battle

Two hours. 120 minutes. Just one-third of the way into the six-hour battle. That's how soon officials in the Obama White House had been told that the assault in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

Officials at the White House and State Department were advised two hours after attackers assaulted the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 that an Islamic militant group had claimed credit for the attack, official emails show.

The emails, obtained by Reuters from government sources not connected with U.S. spy agencies or the State Department and who requested anonymity, specifically mention that the Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility for the attacks.

The brief emails 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 Barack 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.

Administration spokesmen, including White House spokesman Jay Carney, citing an unclassified assessment prepared by the CIA, maintained for days that the attacks likely were a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim film.

No, they did not maintain the film gambit for days. They maintained it for weeks. Two weeks.

Reuters obtained three emails. The first came from the consulate 20-30 minutes into the attack, and said that the attack was underway. The second was evidently sent during a lull in the battle because it said that the compound had been secured.

The third email is a smoking gun.

A third email, 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."

Ansar al-Sharia is al-Qaeda. Or rather, Ansar al-Sharia is the new brand name al-Qaeda is using to attach itself to and lead the larger Islamic movement promoting sharia law. But it was known as of at least August 2012 to be al-Qaeda.

To whom did this information go in Washington?

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.