The New York Times confronts critics of its Benghazi story

Fires burn in the US Benghazi consulate the day after it was attacked by Libyan militants in 2012.
Image caption The controversy over the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi shows no signs of going away

On Sunday, the New York Times published an exhaustive, 7,000-word story by the paper's Cairo bureau chief, David Kirkpatrick, on the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

The report was full of details of the days and hours leading up to the attack, as well as a timeline of the assault itself, and came to several conclusions. Here's the key paragraph:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

While pointing out that the attack was the result of failure on the part of US intelligence and a lack of adequate security for US personnel, Steven L Taylor of Outside the Beltway blog writes: "The story presented does confirm more the general narrative presented by the administration … far more than it does the cover-up theory approach, so this will likely color how many read it."

And that sure is the truth. The Times piece has set off a firestorm among conservatives politicians and pundits, who disagree with the Times' conclusions and question the paper's motivations in running the story.

In the Washington Times, Wesley Pruden writes that Kirkpatrick "grunted, burped and produced a tiny mouse of special pleading, an account with nothing new of much importance, except a few colorful facts of the sort that were once the popcorn of newsmagazine journalism."

Several writers point out that the Times investigation conflicts with earlier reporting by the paper, which found that there were al-Qaeda ties.

"The Benghazi attacks included participants from the main al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya and a terrorist network in Egypt, and, contrary to Kirkpatrick's assertion, evidence that both al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups played some role in the assault," writes Stephen F Hayes of the Weekly Standard.

Other writers echoed the suspicions of some Republican politicians that the Times had an agenda in mind when publishing the piece.

"The Times story tells us little or nothing about Benghazi, but it does remind us that Hillary Clinton is the Times's preferred nominee for president in 2016, and therefore the Democratic Party's," writes Paul Mirengoff of the Powerline Blog. "The Times article is a preview of the Benghazi defense that Hillary will mount over the next two years."

The response from the Times was quick and indignant. Andrew Rosenthal, opinion page editor for the paper, writes:

Since I will have more to say about which candidate we will endorse in 2016 than any other editor at the Times, let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton. We have not chosen anyone. I can also state definitively that there was no editorial/newsroom conspiracy of any kind, because I knew nothing about the Benghazi article until I read it in the paper on Sunday.

And, in an editorial on Monday, the New York Times issued its own salvo:

In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.

So, the poisonous political discourse has been poisoned further. It makes one wonder: how much poison is left?

According to Politico's Blake Hounshell, the debate over Benghazi is not going to go away - and not just because of Ms Clinton's political ambitions. There's so much reporting out there, and so many differing accounts, anyone can construct a theory that suits their particular viewpoint. And no matter what happens, it will never be possible to absolutely prove that al-Qaeda wasn't somehow involved.

"Even if the Times is right, and even if the US intelligence community formally dismisses the idea that al-Qaeda planned the attack, there will always be some who wonder if we simply haven't looked hard enough," he writes.

All this has US News & World Report'S Susan Mulligan shaking her head:

What is the point of this discourse? Does it even matter whether al-Qaeda was involved? It may matter if such a distinction was meant to diminish the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a campaign selling point, but it doesn't matter that much in figuring out how to proceed from here. There are a lot of extremist groups out there, and many of them likely look to al-Qaeda as a heroic group. That's not the same thing as saying al-Qaida orchestrated the attack.

The problem, however, isn't that there isn't a point to the discourse. The problem is everyone has a different one.

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