National Security

As Benghazi Attack Unfolded, White House Meeting Focused on Pastor Jones, YouTube Video

Panetta, Dempsey tasked at meeting with ‘reaching out to Pastor Jones directly’

Inside of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012 / AP

Hillary Clinton and other senior Obama administration officials held an emergency meeting in the early hours of the Benghazi terrorist attack, and much of the discussion focused on a Florida pastor who criticized the Koran and an anti-Islam YouTube video, according to a report released by the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Tuesday.

Secretary Clinton appears to have been the most senior official to participate in the 7:30 p.m. teleconference, about four hours after the assault began on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The attack lasted 13 hours in total and left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Five of the 10 action items from the White House teleconference make reference to a YouTube video that mocked Islam, which had been blamed for stoking anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world, according to meeting notes reviewed by the House Benghazi committee. One of these action items said Clinton would "issue a statement tonight condemning the attacks and stating an official American was killed. … [the Secretary] may issue another statement to distance the United States from the Pastor Jones video."

According to the Benghazi committee report, another action item mentioned "Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of Defense, and Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaching out to ‘Pastor Jones’ directly."

"Pastor Jones" is a reference to Terry Jones, a Florida church leader who drew international criticism in 2010 after promising to burn copies of the Koran. The proposed Koran-burning was met with violent protests across the Middle East and Asia.

Jones did not produce the 2012 YouTube video, and it is unclear why he was a focus at the meeting.

Clinton issued a statement shortly after the meeting condemning the attack in Benghazi and alluding to the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute low-budget trailer that mocked the religion.

"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," said Clinton in the statement. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

For days after the attack, this explanation was echoed by others in the Obama administration. The State Department and the White House suggested that the attack erupted spontaneously out of a protest over the anti-Islam YouTube video.

According to the report by the Benghazi committee, State Department officials in Washington were receiving real-time information from security officers on the ground in Benghazi, which characterized the assault as a terrorist attack and did not mention any protests.

The State Department’s undersecretary of management Patrick Kennedy relayed this information to Clinton throughout the evening, he told the committee.

In private conversations during the night of the attack, Clinton described the attack as an act of terrorism carried out by an "al Qaeda-like group." The terror organization Ansar al-Sharia took credit for the assault.

"The fact the 7:30 p.m. White House meeting, which took place while Ambassador Stevens was considered missing and before Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty were killed, was about the attacks in Benghazi but much of the conversation focused on the video is surprising given no direct link or solid evidence existed connecting the attacks in Benghazi and the video at the time the White House meeting took place," said the Benghazi committee report.

The report also found that no U.S. military assets ever left the ground to try to get to Benghazi during the 13-hour siege. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Foreign Service officer Sean Smith were killed during the initial ground attack on the consulate. CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed hours later while defending the nearby CIA annex that came under mortar and machine gun fire.

The Obama administration has said there were no nearby military assets available, and the closest response teams would not have been able to reach the consulate in time.

The 800-page report was released on Tuesday by the Republican majority members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and it is based on interviews with over 100 witnesses and 75,000 pages of new documents.

In a statement on Tuesday, Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.)said he and his colleagues had conducted the investigation "in a manner worthy of the American people’s respect, and worthy of the memory of those who died."

"I simply ask the American people to read this report for themselves, look at the evidence we have collected, and reach their own conclusions," said Gowdy. "You can read this report in less time than our fellow citizens were taking fire and fighting for their lives on the rooftops and in the streets of Benghazi."

The Clinton campaign blasted the committee report on Tuesday, saying it was a "partisan" effort to "hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign."

"After more than two years and more than $7 million in taxpayer funds, the Committee report has not found anything to contradict the conclusions of the multiple, earlier investigations," said the Clinton campaign.