Somehow this slipped through the cracks for me yesterday amid all the other Benghazi news, but Noah Rothman flagged it today and now I’m flagging it too. Simple question from Attkisson: If State had concluded as early as the day after the attack that a jihadi group was responsible, why was Hillary Clinton blaming the Mohammed video at the memorial service two days later? Here’s the key e-mail, which was cc’d to various people at State, describing a conversation with the Libyan ambassador. The author’s name is redacted.

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Timestamp: September 12, 2012, at 12:46 p.m. Less than 24 hours after Stevens was killed, they were already pointing the finger at Ansar al-Sharia, not a protest mob angered by the video that got out of control. But how’d they get the name Ansar al-Sharia? The (possible) answer to that comes earlier in the e-mail chain, on the day of the attack itself. Timestamp: September 11, 2012, 5:55 p.m.

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So here’s the question. Did State know for a fact based on independent intelligence that Ansar al-Sharia was responsible before they started blaming the video, or do these e-mails simply show them relying on the group’s own claim of responsibility as evidence in the early chaotic hours afterward? If it’s the former, then introducing the video into the talking-point mix really was a deliberate attempt to hide the truth. If it’s the latter, then maybe it’s a simple matter of State having revised its assessment over the next few days as the CIA produced new information about what happened. Remember, the first official CIA talking points on September 14th said, “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex.” They were surely aware too that Ansar al-Sharia had taken credit for the attack but their first pass at explaining what happened blamed it on a spontaneous protest. Did they get new information between the 12th and 14th to steer them away from “Ansar al-Sharia did it” or did they deliberately steer it that way themselves to protect the White House? I’m not sure the e-mails quoted above push us hard in one direction either way.

One other thing. It’s become impossible (for me, at least) to keep straight precisely which details we already knew about Benghazi and which we didn’t know. Sometimes it’s easy — the Ben Rhodes e-mail uncovered this week was an emphatic did-not-know — but the timeline in the first few days is a muddle without memory-fresheners. I checked our archives to see if there’d been any indication in the past that the administration suspected Ansar al-Sharia’s involvement before they started blaming the video. Lo and behold — Reuters, October 23, 2012:

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…

[An] email, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time [on September 11, 2012, the day of the attack], 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.

Actually, there’s an even earlier Reuters report that gets into this. On October 2, 2012, three weeks after the attack, in a piece headlined “U.S. had early indications Libya attack tied to organized militants,” the news agency cited very early intel about jihadi involvement as raising “fresh questions” about the administration’s blame-the-video narrative. Saxby Chambliss is quoted as wondering why he’d been hearing about a Mohammed movie if they had indications from the beginning that Ansar al-Sharia was involved. That question’s been out there since almost day one and still hasn’t been answered completely. How did the ball advance from “jihadis” on September 12th to “spontaneous protest” on September 14th? Was the CIA’s conclusion basically transitive — i.e. the movie inspired the protests in Cairo and the protest in Cairo inspired the attack in Benghazi, ergo the movie kinda sorta inspired the attack? Was it based on actual evidence? (The AP once reported that the attackers had encouraged a crowd of bystanders to chant about the movie.) That’s topic A for Trey Gowdy and the select committee.

In lieu of an exit question, I’ll leave you with this as a reminder of how serious Democrats are about this subject.

Update: Morgen Richmond e-mails to one-up me: CBS reported as early as September 13, 2012, just two days after the attack, that Ansar al-Sharia was the lead suspect. Three days later, Susan Rice was on the Sunday shows ventilating those “spontaneous protest” talking points.