Oct 24, 2012 — -- After the White House and State Department downplayed the significance of email alerts sent to national security officials in real-time during the assault on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month, top congressional Republicans are pouncing on the email alerts, one of which suggested a known terrorist group claimed credit for the attack in its immediate aftermath.
In light of the emails, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire teamed up today to write a letter to question President Obama why his administration "consistently described the attack for days afterward as a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam video."
"These emails make clear that your administration knew within two hours of the attack that it was a terrorist act and that Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group with links to al Qaeda, had claimed responsibility for it," the trio wrote. "This latest revelation only adds to the confusion surrounding what you and your administration knew about the attacks in Benghazi, when you knew it, and why you responded to those tragic events in the ways that you did."
In a separate statement, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the email alerts "undermine any administration claim to have ever believed in good faith that our ambassador and three other American officials were murdered in a 'spontaneous reaction' to a film trailer posted on the Internet.
"I again call upon President Obama to release any intelligence reporting which led his administration to characterize the firebombing of our consulate and the assassination of our ambassador as a spontaneous demonstration against a movie clip," King wrote. "The White House should also release the intelligence analyses which finally convinced them that this was a terrorist attack."
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, also questioned what the White House and State Department initially knew.
"These emails add to the growing list of serious questions about what top officials from the Obama administration initially knew about the attacks on Americans in Benghazi and about who was responsible just hours after the assault began," Price wrote in a statement. "At the very least, they demand that, on behalf of the American people, we continue to ask why the Obama administration attempted to so adamantly and publicly push an alternative narrative about the attacks for more than two weeks after four Americans were killed. It is a narrative that appears to have been, from almost the very beginning, in doubt."
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today disputed any notion that the email alerts should be viewed as conclusive evidence.
"Posting something on Facebook is not, in and of itself, evidence," Clinton told reporters. "I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be."
Clinton reiterated that the State Department's internal investigation is ongoing and is examining all the evidence, "not cherry picking ... one story here or looking at one document there." She called a full investigation the "appropriate approach" before drawing any conclusions about the attack.
At least one congressional Democrat came to the administration's defense, urging lawmakers to afford investigators ample time to review the incident.
"We shouldn't do anything to compromise the ongoing effort to hunt down the attackers or the ongoing review of this attack by the independent accountability board," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "We need to let these investigations go forward and only then draw conclusions."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters today, "There was a variety of information coming in" in the aftermath of the attack as the intelligence community assessed strands of information to "make judgments about what happened and who was responsible."
White House officials added that the alerts were not definitive, noting that Ansar al-Sharia denied responsibility for the attack six days later.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that the email mentioning Ansar al-Sharia was sent by the State Department's operations center, whose role is to collect public, unclassified information and disseminate it to senior administration officials in "real time."
Nuland added that the operations center sends tens of emails each day to keep administration officials informed of "what's out there in the public," and though it uses some judgment in sending out summaries of what various extremist groups and press reports are saying, the summaries should not be considered analysis.
"They report what they get. So if they reported, 'embassy in Tripoli says,' then it is based on something that embassy in Tripoli said," she said. "Whether that can be right or that could be wrong is something to be evaluated later."
Nuland confirmed that assessments on the reports are made by the intelligence community.
ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.