From President Obama on down, the recap was simple: A crowd of demonstrators angry over an obscure YouTube video that denigrated Islam’s Prophet Muhammad spontaneously stormed the complex.
Pentagon chieftains likewise said the military did all it could in the ensuing eight-plus hours of the attacks, during which two former Navy SEALs — security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty — were killed by mortar fire while trying to protect a nearby CIA annex.
Today, the public knows that those early administration pronouncements were false. They were uttered with less than two months to go in a presidential election campaign in which Mr. Obama declared al Qaeda on its heels.
In fact, no demonstration occurred outside the mission on Sept. 11, the 11th anniversary of al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington. The attackers were a heavily armed, well-organized band of Islamic extremists, most notably the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Shariah.
Security, rather than “robust,” was nearly nonexistent. The local militia hired to guard the compound fled as extremists set fires that ultimately killed Stevens and Smith as they sought safety in living quarters known as “Villa C.”
As for the Pentagon, questions persist as to why no forces were in a position to reach Benghazi to rescue the diplomats, CIA officers and the former SEALs under fire at the annex. The only help they got came from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, whose team did not arrive until nearly daybreak Sept. 12.
The story line of the Benghazi scandal is filled with misleading statements and poor decision-making:
•A president who publicly clung to the idea that an American dabbler in YouTube productions prompted the deaths of four Americans.
•Altered “talking points” that the administration used on a series of Sunday interview shows to tell Americans that the attack was a protest rather than an orchestrated assault by terrorists.
• The world’s most powerful military as a spectator as the attack unfolded.
Republicans say the sequence of events adds up to a cover-up of mismanagement and of the fact that Islamic militants carried out the killings. The White House refrains from using such terms as Islamists and jihadists, and instead prefers the term “violent extremists.”
Mr. Obama calls Republicans’ pursuit of the talking points a “sideshow.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, says the requests for extra security never reached her desk and she played no role in the infamous talking points.
The Pentagon maintains that its standoffish approach was correct, even as it tries to prevent a repeat. It has positioned a fast-reaction force in Spain and has given U.S. Africa Command its own emergency Army Special Forces team — something it lacked on that September day.
Sept. 11, 2012
The seeds of the tragedy began well before the assault.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion that toppled Moammar Gadhafi, was becoming an increasingly violent place. Extremists carried out at least 20 attacks on foreign targets, most of them Western, including the U.S. mission, where a bomb tore a hole in a security wall. The U.S. intelligence community had produced several well-circulated memos on the likely presence of al Qaeda in the area.
Yet, as violence rose, the number of security personnel to protect American diplomats fell despite embassy pleas for more. Three U.S. Army site security teams left, the last one a month before the attack. The State Department also took away the embassy’s sole airplane.
Just as troubling, the people whom the State Department appointed to provide security were unreliable. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade, which fought Gadhafi, had ties to Ansar al-Shariah. The brigade also became disgruntled over pay and refused at times to do its job.
Eric Nordstrom, at the time the regional security officer in Libya, later told congressional investigators that he fought with Foggy Bottom when he asked a supervisor to send 12 more officers. Rebuffed, he told his superior during a telephone call, “For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.”
Stevens seemed to sense an assault was coming. He wrote a cable Aug. 16 to State describing a rise in violence and asking for security help. None came. The last site-security team left.
The attack seemed to come from everywhere at 9:40 p.m. local time. Dozens of armed men stormed the mission’s walls, found fuel cans and starting setting fires. The militia and private Libyan guards ran off.
Twenty minutes later, the State Department sent an email to the White House National Security Council staff. It said the mission was under attack and that Ansar al-Shariah was taking credit. There was no mention of a demonstration. In fact, there is no communication from the mission at any time that night about a demonstration — though one erupted outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day.
Stevens, Smith and one security officer holed up in Villa C. But as it filled with smoke, the officer, with his hands and knees on the floor, tried to lead the two diplomats to safety through a window. Smith was found dead in the villa.
Security personnel later determined that Stevens had been taken to a Benghazi hospital, where doctors tried to resuscitate him before declaring him dead. The State Department’s accountability review board said the ambassador died of “apparent smoke inhalation.”
Around midnight, a group at the annex, a base for the CIA to search for Gadhafi’s weapons of mass destruction and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, launched a dangerous rescue trip to the embassy. They made it back and waited for help. None came — for at least five hours.
Sept. 12, 2012
As the annex took sporadic fire, it was the evening of Sept. 11 back in Washington, where policymakers’ discussions of what to do were remarkable for what did not happen.
Mrs. Clinton later told Congress that she worked the phones to get the local Libyan government to protect the Americans, but no troops came to the annex.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, were at the White House on another matter and mentioned the attack to the president. Mr. Obama told them to handle the crisis. The president’s exact actions afterward are not known. He left the next day for a campaign event in Las Vegas. He did not convene a meeting of his National Security Council.
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey returned to the Pentagon and conferred with Army Gen. Carter Ham, then chief of Africa Command who was in Washington as opposed to his headquarters at Stuttgart, Germany.
Though running for more than four years, and with volatile North Africa a key focus, Africom controlled few of its own forces. It had no emergency response team or warplanes. The best it could do in the short run was to fly two unarmed Predator drones, one at a time, to watch the mean streets of Benghazi.
It took Mr. Panetta two to four hours to mobilize a fast-reaction commando team at Fort Bragg, N.C., and send it, not to Libya, but to a NATO base across the Mediterranean in Sicily. Gen. Ham borrowed European Command’s commander’s in extremis force. But it was on a training mission in Croatia and needed time to reassemble and get transportation to Sicily.
Both teams arrived at the NATO base on the afternoon of Sept. 12, way too late. The crisis had ended.
Gen. Ham’s last option: F-16s parked at the NATO base in Aviano, Italy. With no good intelligence on whom to bomb at Benghazi and no tanker to refuel the F-16s, the fighters never launched.
The embassy team arrived at the Benghazi airport around 1:15 a.m. local time after negotiating a chartered flight because State had taken away its passenger plane. It took hours to leave the airport as diplomats arranged vehicles and security. The team did not arrive at the annex until 5 a.m.
At that time, extremists launched three mortar rounds. The first missed. But the attackers showed their artillery skills by scoring direct hits on the roof where ex-SEALs Woods and Doherty were protecting the annex by returning fire. No support came. Their bodies were retrieved by the rescue team.
By 6:30 a.m., more than eight hours after the mission was set ablaze, a convoy left the annex for the airport.
In Tripoli, during the annex attack, Mr. Hicks negotiated the use of a Libyan C-130 to fly reinforcements to Benghazi to secure the airport. Four Army Special Forces soldiers assigned to the embassy were ready to go.
“It was every reason to continue to believe that our personnel were in danger,” Mr. Hicks later told Congress.
But it was a no-go. The officer in charge told Mr. Hicks that his commanders within Africa Command nixed the trip.
The day after, Washington
Unfolding events would shape the scandal for months.
The Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report telling key leaders that Ansar al-Shariah was responsible for the attack, The Washington Times reported — just as State asserted in an email to the White House the previous day.
At State, Beth Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, wrote a widely distributed email to, among others, Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff. Ms. Jones had spoken with the Libyan ambassador. “I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Shariah, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”
At this point, every bit of evidence points to a jihadist attack with no embassy reports of a demonstration. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department said the attack was the work of terrorists.
But one man, perhaps the most important man in town on such matters, did not agree. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper went to the White House. His briefing said a demonstration over the YouTube video grew into a spontaneous onrush.
When they learned of his brief, people close to the intelligence community told The Times, they were incredulous. There was simply no good evidence. Libyans who lived near the mission were telling Western reporters that there was no demonstration.
Mr. Clapper’s assessment to the White House would turn out to be shockingly inaccurate. The evening of Sept. 12, a senior State Department official held a conference call with reporters. When asked, the briefer did not confirm any protests outside the mission.
The next day, reporters’ questions began to touch on security. A reporter asked Victoria Nuland, Mrs. Clinton’s chief spokeswoman, whether “very few” security people stood ready that day.
Ms. Nuland then gave an answer that would prove to be grossly inaccurate.
“I’m going to reject that,” she said. “Let me tell you what I can about the security at our mission in Benghazi. It did include local Libyan guard force around the outer perimeter. This is the way we work in all of our missions all around the world, that the outer perimeter is the responsibility of the host government.
“There was obviously a physical perimeter barrier, a wall,” she added. “And then there was a robust American security presence inside the compound. This is absolutely consistent with what we have done at a number of missions similar to Benghazi around the world.”
The Sunday talk shows
That weekend, the Sunday political talk shows were eager to talk about Benghazi and wanted the chief diplomat, Mrs. Clinton, to appear. But the White House settled on Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to give a version of events that turned out to be so wrong that it spurred charges of a political cover-up.
In the meantime, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence asked for information it could use publicly to talk about who attacked the mission. This gave rise to a “talking points” document that would be finalized the day before Mrs. Rice’s TV appearances and delivered to her, other policymakers and Congress.
“We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US consulate and subsequently its annex. The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.”
The final “talking points” approved by the White House said:
“The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
Mrs. Rice would go on five Sunday shows that Sept. 16, and strayed beyond the talking points.
“The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today, is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack,” she told Fox News.
“What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy, and then it grew very violent, and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control. But we don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack.”
Two days later at the White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney continued the talking points.
“I’m saying that based on information that we — our initial information, and that includes all information — we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a preplanned or premeditated attack; that we saw evidence that it was sparked by the reaction to this video. And that is what we know thus far based on the evidence, concrete evidence — not supposition — concrete evidence that we have thus far.”
More than a week later, on Sept. 25, Mr. Obama went before the United Nations. He dedicated his speech to the fallen ambassador, and he clung to the video narrative when discussing the attack carried out by people he identified as “killers.”
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents,” the president said. “There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”
Video story unwinds
Even before Mr. Obama’s U.N. speech, the video argument was fading.
On Sept. 19, Matthew Olsen, who heads the National Counterterrorism Center, went before Congress and labeled Benghazi a “terrorist attack,” a designation that implies a premeditated plan to kill.
On Sept. 27, Mr. Panetta appeared before the press and declared, “As we determined the details of what took place there and how that attack took place, it became clear that there were terrorists who planned that attack.”
The next day, Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, retracted his entire day-after brief to the White House.
“In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” said the DNI statement, put out under the name of his spokesman, Shawn Turner. “As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
At the White House, the retreat continued, with Mr. Carney first defending Mrs. Rice.
“No one in the administration has claimed to know all the answers,” he said. “We have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time, and that information has evolved. For example, if any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept. 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. As time went on, additional information became available. Clearly, we know more today than we did on the Sunday after the attack.”
Then, on the eve of the first congressional hearing that promised to embarrass the administration, the State Department quickly organized a conference call with reporters to declare that it never concluded that the assault stemmed from a demonstration.
“That was not our conclusion,” a senior State Department official said on the condition of anonymity, noting that security cameras showed no protest. (In fact, future disclosures would show that State pushed the CIA to blame the attack on protesters.)
The backtracking started as the first whistleblowers came forward to tell a completely different story about Benghazi.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had dispatched investigators to Benghazi to find the truth. The bureaucracy started handing over incriminating emails. Libyan diplomats had been warning for months of increased violence and the need for more security. State ignored them.
Mr. Issa began a hearing Oct. 10 by noting the crumbling administration story line.
“Yesterday they held a broad news conference over the phone in which they made it very clear that it had never been the State Department’s position — I repeat, never been the State Department’s position — that in fact this assault was part of a reaction to a video or the like. This is corroborated by numerous witnesses and whistleblowers.”
Mr. Issa’s first two witnesses were Mr. Nordstrom, the security officer who likened Foggy Bottom to the Taliban, and Army National Guard Col. Andrew Wood, a Green Beret who headed three site-security teams in Tripoli.
Rebutting Ms. Nuland’s assurance that security was “robust,” Col. Wood said State pulled all his teams out of the country over his protests.
“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” he testified. “The situation remained uncertain, and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak.”
He pointed to the ambush on the British ambassador’s convoy, prompting London to abandon Benghazi.
By November, the debate on Benghazi shifted from security to those CIA-produced talking points. The intelligence committee took testimony behind closed doors from CIA officials. They learned about changes to the initial assessment of who attacked the consulate, with the references to al Qaeda removed at the request of Obama political appointees at the State Department.
On Nov. 28, reporters repeatedly asked Mr. Carney why the administration pressed for changes that turned out to be inaccurate. Mr. Carney provided an answer that would spark accusations that he deliberately misled the American people.
He said, “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two — of these two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility,’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate.”
His message was clear: The CIA wrote them on its own. The only correction the president’s men and State wanted was a single insignificant style change referring to an issue of diplomatic protocol.
On Dec. 19, State released the findings of its accountability review board, headed by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
The panel harshly criticized State leaders for failing to provide more security. But the panel said responsibility stopped at the assistant secretary level and did not reach Mrs. Clinton. She never appeared before the board.
“Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” the board said.
Four senior State officials left their posts, but not necessarily the federal payroll. Eric Boswell resigned as assistant secretary for diplomatic security; Charlene Lamb as the deputy for embassy security; Raymond Maxwell as the deputy assistant secretary for North Africa; and a fourth official was reassigned.
As the year ended, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued the first criticisms of the Pentagon for failing to be in a ready state to aid diplomats in an area of the world known to harbor al Qaeda-linked extremists. It faulted State for not coordinating such plans.
As 2013 began, Mrs. Clinton, having recovered from a concussion, faced congressional scrutiny for the first time.
Amid blistering questions from Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the potential 2016 presidential candidate did not give an inch. She said she was never told of requests for added security in Libya, nor did she play a role in influencing the infamous talking points.
“I wasn’t involved in the talking points process,” she testified.
Then she uttered the Jan. 23 hearing’s most famous quote: “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans?”
With arms raised in the air, she testified, “What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.”
The hearing also will be noted for her exchange with freshman Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.
“I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility,” he said. “I think that ultimately, with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that. Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post. I think it’s inexcusable.”
Said Mrs. Clinton, “Senator, the reason I’m here today is to answer questions the best I can. I am the secretary of state. And the [accountability board] made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the assistant secretary level and below.”
On Feb. 7, Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to explain why they sent no help to Benghazi. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, had threatened to hold up the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary unless the two men testified.
Mr. Panetta disclosed that after a 5 p.m. conversation with the president during the crisis, the two did not speak again that night. The president did not call again as the crisis progressed.
“I firmly believe that the Department of Defense and the U.S. armed forces did all we could do in the response to the attacks in Benghazi,” Mr. Panetta said.
Even if he could get F-16s or AC-130 gunships over the city, he said, he had no intelligence on targets and had no communication link to those in the annex.
“No, because the attack ended before they could get off the ground,” Mr. Panetta said.
“We didn’t know how long it would last,” the senator replied.
Gen. Dempsey testified that Gen. Ham, the Africom leader, had informed him of the Aug. 16 cable from Stevens. Mrs. Clinton had testified that she never saw it. Asked about the discrepancy, Gen. Dempsey testified, “I would call myself surprised that she didn’t.”
By the spring, Mr. Issa had found more whistleblowers, specifically Mr. Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya, who said he faced retaliation for providing information to the committee.
Days after the Benghazi assault, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, traveled to Tripoli on a quick fact-finding mission. When Mr. Chaffetz attended a classified briefing with Mr. Hicks, a state department attorney was shut out because his security clearance was not high enough.
Mr. Hicks said Cheryl Mills, Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff, telephoned, “very upset,” Mr. Hicks said. “She demanded a report on the visit.”
Two days later, what Republicans called a bombshell showed up on ABC News. It had acquired seemingly all the iterations of the CIA talking points and showed an editing battle between State and the intelligence community as Obama officials tried to squeeze out references to terrorism and al Qaeda.
“The only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the CIA was a change from — referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi, from ‘consulate,’ because it was not a consulate, to ‘diplomatic post.’”
An incredulous reporter accused him of “parsing” words to avoid the truth.
On Wednesday, the White House released more than 100 pages of emails showing the give-and-take among the White House, State and CIA. Fundamental changes were made in a document that would explain to Congress and the American public what happened in Benghazi.
The intelligence community’s first draft the morning of Sept. 14 did not say that there was a demonstration outside the Benghazi mission. It did call the attack “spontaneous,” inspired by other such attacks in North Africa. It said that Islamic extremists tied to al Qaeda were involved in the attack. After the talking points were distributed to State and the White House, big changes appeared.
Added was the false assertion that there was, in fact, a demonstration outside the compound. The word “al Qaeda” was deleted.
By Saturday afternoon, as the White House national security team met to give final approval, the CIA-intelligence community’s talking points had been boiled down to three bullets, from an original six.
After deleting “al Qaeda” and adding “demonstrations,” this final product deleted the word “Islamic” before the word “extremists” and scrubbed any reference to previous attacks on foreign facilities in Benghazi.
At the time the talking points were submitted to the White House that Saturday, Ben Rhodes, a communications deputy, suggested the one style change on what to call the mission.
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