CNN Drops Its Own Scoop on Benghazi; Networks Fail to Even Pick It Up

[UPDATED BELOW] CNN's Arwa Damon scored an exclusive interview with a suspect in the Benghazi attacks, yet CNN chose to air it only once. Aside from a brief mention of it on Thursday morning, the network has dropped its own scoop that it broke on 5 p.m. Wednesday on The Situation Room.

None of the three networks mentioned the story on their Wednesday evening news casts, and only CBS talked about Benghazi on Thursday, though they didn't mention Arwa Damon's report.

CNN host Wolf Blitzer hyped the CNN exclusive that's "already making huge waves here in Washington." Yet after covering it for the first 15 minutes of his show, Blitzer made no mention of it again. CNN dropped the story for the rest of the evening, reminding viewers of the reluctance of CNN hosts not named Wolf Blitzer to cover Benghazi.

Damon emphasized how easy it was to find and interview a suspect the U.S. authorities have labeled a person of interest in the Benghazi attacks. "U.S. officials have often suggested that they would be interested in speaking to a man named Ahmed Abu Khattala about the events the night of the attack. He's really not that difficult to find."

Damon wondered, "here is a man who, if not directly involved in what took place, is, at the very least, a key witness. Why has no one reached out to him yet?"

After CNN's initial report on Wednesday afternoon, Fox News actually mentioned Damon's story more than CNN did. Wednesday's Special Report cited it and host Brett Baier mentioned it the next morning on America's Newsroom. Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy alluded to it on Thursday morning.

CNN's lone mention of the story since it broke came on Thursday's Early Start, where co-host Michaela Pereira brought it up in a news brief:

"If CNN can find him, why can't the U.S. government? Republican lawmakers demanding answers from the FBI after CNN's Arwa Damon was able to locate and interview a suspected ringleader from last year's deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Despite being labeled a person of interest by U.S. authorities, Ahmed Abu Khattala says he's never been contacted by American or Libyan officials, and is willing to meet with the FBI if he's asked."

[UPDATE (8/1/13 5:31 p.m. EDT)]: At 4:46 p.m. EDT during Thursday's The Lead, host Jake Tapper finally broke CNN's silence and talked at length about Benghazi, citing Damon's report before he broke another exclusive on Benghazi.

Below is a transcript of the segment, which aired on The Situation Room on July 31 at 5:00 p.m. EDT:

[5:00]

WOLF BLITZER: We begin with a story you'll see first right here on CNN. But it's already making huge waves here in Washington. For the first time, you're going to hear from a suspect in September's deadly attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, the attack that killed the United States ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans.

The man is not in jail. He's walking around freely. U.S. authorities haven't been able to catch up with him, but CNN's Arwa Damon did. When that news hit Capitol Hill today, there was sharp reaction.

(Video Clip)

Rep. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-Utah): News out today that CNN was able to go in and talk to one of the suspect terrorists. How come the military hasn't been able to get after them and capture or kill these people? How come the FBI isn't doing this and yet CNN is?

(End Video Clip)

BLITZER: CNN's chief national correspondent John King is standing with more on what's going on Capitol Hill, the reaction. Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is in Cairo right now. Arwa, I want to play part of your report about meeting this man in Benghazi.

(Video Clip)

ARWA DAMON, CNN correspondent (voice-over): U.S. officials have often suggested that they would be interested in speaking to a man named Ahmed Abu Khattala about the events the night of the attack. He's really not that difficult to find.

(on camera): We met with Ahmed Abu Khattala in public, at the coffee shop of a well-known hotel here in Benghazi, for around two hours. He seemed to be confident, his demeanor most certainly not that of a man who believed that he was going to be detained or targeted any time soon. And he agreed to let us film audio, but not video, of our conversation.

(voice-over) (subtitles): Did anyone from the American or Libyan government get in touch with you?

AHMED ABU KHATTALA (subtitles): Never.

DAMON: Never?

KHATTALA: Never.

DAMON: No American official or Libyan official tried to contact you?

KHATTALA: Even the investigative team did not try to contact me.

DAMON: You're talking about the FBI team?

KHATTALA: Yes.

(End Video Clip)

BLITZER: Arwa is joining us now. Arwa, you mentioned it wasn't very hard to find this guy. Well tell our viewers how easy was it?

DAMON: Very easy, Wolf. This is, you saw in that report, is not a man who is in hiding. He showed up at the interview and he was being escorted by -- or part of his entourage were around half a dozen members of one of the smaller Islamist units that are, in fact, part of the Libyan security forces.

Now, we were the first television outlet to sit down with him, but he has given interviews to print media in the past, as well. He also says that he has very close relations with commanders within the Libyan security forces, so they most certainly know how to get ahold of him. And, Wolf (Unintelligible) if the Americans reached out to him, he would be willing to, in fact, sit down with them, not be interrogated by them, he was quick to emphasize, but would be open to having a conversation similar to the one that we had -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I know you sat down with him, what, for two hours or so. What else did he tell you?

DAMON: Well, he was going through the details of what he witnessed that night. And he did get a bit agitated in some instances when we were pressing him for specific details, accusing us of wanting to interrogate him. And he said he arrived on scene after the attack took place, at the request of one of the Libyan commanders who was there, that he saw men carrying rocket-propelled grenades, medium guns, other types of weapons, but because of the intensity of the gunfire, he was forced to stay on the perimeter of the compound.

He claims that when he finally entered, he says for only a brief period of time, he did not see any buildings on fire. But he says that everyone had evacuated. So his narrative is, at times, contradictory. It was a very long, rambling interview. But some intelligence experts, Wolf, say that the Americans are looking in the wrong direction when it comes to Abu Khattala, that they really need to broaden their horizons, look outside of the box when it comes to really hunting down who is responsible for that Benghazi attack. But it still begs the question, here is a man who, if not directly involved in what took place, is, at the very least, a key witness. Why has no one reached out to him yet?

BLITZER: Good question. Let's dig on that. Arwa Damon, one of our courageous journalists. Thanks very much.
 

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014