The deadly military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has raised numerous foreign policy and national security questions and fueled a fierce, partisan election debate over the Obama administration’s handling of the attack.
The strike that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is either proof of President Barack Obama’s leadership failures or a tragic event that occurred despite the administration’s best efforts to protect the compound and respond in the aftermath of the attack, according to highly charged arguments on both sides.
Administration officials have warned against drawing conclusions from individual documents that have leaked into the public sphere. They maintain that a full picture of what happened and any assessment of blame can be determined only after a complete review of all the evidence. But as documents continue to surface in the final days of the presidential campaign, the intensity of allegations of administration impropriety or incompetence has risen.
A look at what is known, what is still unanswered and who is investigating the incident that has called into doubt Washington’s ability to predict such events, secure American personnel in dangerous places and track down those responsible.
The undisputed facts:
At 9:40 p.m. local time on Sept. 11, the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States, organized, well-armed attackers stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The attack occurred within hours of demonstrators in neighboring Egypt scaling the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to protest an American-made, anti-Islam film. Those protests spread in the following days across the Muslim world from Morocco to India, with 50 people killed.
The attackers breached the Benghazi consulate’s perimeter and set fire to parts of the compound, including the building where Stevens, his security guard and State Department information officer Sean Smith took refuge in a safe room. Diplomatic security agents on the site notified Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and a nearby CIA office of the attack. They tried, unsuccessfully, to repel the assault. Reinforcements arrived from the CIA annex to evacuate those in the compound, but Smith was already dead and Stevens could not be found. The group fell back to the CIA annex, which later came under well-aimed mortar fire, killing CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs. The bodies of the victims and the survivors of the attack were evacuated from Benghazi.
National Security Adviser Tom Donilon advised Obama of the attack at about 5 p.m. in Washington (11 p.m. in Libya) while he was meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Obama ordered that the U.S. begin moving military assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies. Those didn’t arrive until the fighting was over at 4 a.m. Libya time, or 10 p.m. in Washington.
The unanswered questions:
Q: Was there an intelligence failure? Did the Obama administration know about threats to the Benghazi consulate that could have allowed it to either prevent or turn back the attack?
A: Multiple senior administration officials have said there was no specific, credible threat information about a planned attack on the consulate on Sept. 11 or any other date. U.S. officials have said that while they now believe the attack was planned, it appears that it was planned a few hours in advance, not days or weeks.
However, those officials also have noted a serious deterioration in the security situation in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack, including several previous incidents at the consulate itself, the office of the International Red Cross and an attempt on the life of the British ambassador to Libya.
Former Libya-based security officials have said the threat environment was extremely dangerous and Stevens himself had written cables back to Washington stressing the worsening conditions and heightened extremist activity. And documents found at the site six weeks after the attack indicate that consulate employees noticed a local Libyan police officer taking photos of the consulate from a building across the street on the morning of Sept. 11, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
The White House was aware of a growing terrorist threat in the region. It signed off a year ago on a new counterterrorism task force in North Africa to combat what it believes is a growing threat from al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali, Libya and elsewhere in the region. An elite Delta Force team has been in the region for six months, beginning to set up its intelligence and targeting network.
Q: Should the administration have increased security at the consulate based on the danger in Benghazi? Would it have made a difference?
A: State Department officials have testified to Congress that security at the compound was adequate for the assessed threat level. Those same officials have acknowledged that the security was clearly inadequate for the size and scale of the Sept. 11 attack. Fox News has reported, citing a classified cable, that consulate security staffers warned a month before the attack that the Benghazi compound was vulnerable. Appeals for additional manpower from the former regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and the commander of a Tripoli-based military team were denied. But officials insist there is no guarantee that the requested extra support would have been enough to deter or defend against such a sustained attack. The consulate was lightly guarded compared with other diplomatic missions of its size in volatile locations.
Q: Was the immediate response to the attack inadequate? Did officials in Washington turn down urgent appeals for assistance from the intelligence community and the military, and did authorities on the ground tell would-be responders to “stand down” as the assault was happening?
A: Senior intelligence officials have denied reports that officials in Washington rejected requests for CIA agents at the nearby annex to respond to the consulate attack. These officials insist that a half-dozen security forces from the CIA annex responded within 25 minutes of the first call for help from the consulate. Armed with the small arms they normally carry – and with no response from Libyan officials who were asked to provide heavy weaponry – they helped rescue some State Department personnel and repel the militants. An unarmed Defense Department drone aircraft was quickly moved overhead to provide surveillance video for the CIA on the ground during the night. Two military members were with the CIA team that flew from Tripoli to Benghazi during the night to provide assistance. Panetta, meanwhile, ordered two teams of special operations forces from Fort Bragg, N.C., and central Europe to head to the area, and sent a Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to Libya. The Marine team got to Tripoli, but by then the Americans had already been flown out of Libya. The commando teams got to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, but arrived after the fight was over. Two of the CIA security officers, Woods and Doherty, died in a mortar attack just before dawn when insurgents assaulted the CIA annex, where the Americans had taken refuge.
Q: Did the administration intentionally downplay the attack by initially describing it as a response to the anti-Islam movie and not specifically an “act of terrorism”? Is the administration trying to cover up al-Qaida links to the attack to benefit Obama politically in his re-election campaign?
A: It’s unclear what motivations, if any, were behind the administration’s messaging, but Obama heatedly denied any political motivation in one of his debates with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
In public statements, administration officials did link the Benghazi attack to the anti-Islam film by saying it appeared to have sprung from the same anger that sparked the violent protests elsewhere. Those statements, though, such as widely criticized comments by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, were couched as preliminary findings based on the best available evidence at the time.
Intelligence officials say their assessment – from a protest gone bad to an orchestrated attack – evolved as more information became available. They say that while early reports indicated extremists were involved in the assault, initial public statements were deliberately cautious and limited since they involved classified intelligence. While it has become clear that information was coming in in real time during the attack, there are still questions about how quickly conflicting reports were sorted out and how high up the chain of command the information went.
State Department officials have said they never concluded the attack began as a spontaneous demonstration against the movie and said further that there was no protest outside the consulate before the assault occurred. However, they also stress that they made no immediate conclusions about the origins or impetus for the attack. Eyewitnesses have told various news organizations, including The New York Times, that some of the attackers said they were angered by the film, but there is no evidence yet to suggest that that was their motivation to storm the compound.
Q: Who did it?
A: That is still unclear. The Tunisian government is holding as a suspect a Tunisian man named Ali Harzi, who was arrested in Turkey and may have some ties to the attack. Emails sent from the State Department to the White House and other government agencies on the evening of the attack reported that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility, leading to charges that the administration knew it was a terror attack and not protesters. However, the group subsequently denied responsibility for the attack and there are questions about whether the initial claim was credible. U.S. intelligence also intercepted phone calls in which al-Sharia members were bragging about pulling off the attack to members of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, an offshoot of al-Qaida.
Q: Who is investigating the incident?
A: In addition to an FBI investigation, which is required when an American official is killed in the line of duty overseas, there are at least four congressional investigations and several State Department probes now under way. The FBI will try to determine who actually committed the attack and killed the four Americans with an eye toward potential prosecution or other action. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is looking into possible administration negligence related to security at the consulate and the response to attack. The House and Senate Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees are also seeking answers to the questions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has appointed an independent accountability review board to examine any State Department failures and make recommendations on diplomatic security. The State Department’s inspector general has informed Congress that his office will be making its own inquiries.