While six weeks of leaks and testimony have made it clear that the Obama administration had reports from the start that the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, was a terrorist attack, the partisan dueling still leaves at least three questions unanswered.
The first is why the administration persisted for days in saying the attack was a spontaneous demonstration that “seems to have been hijacked” by militants. A second is whether U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who died in the assault, had requested more bodyguards or other security. A third is how Stevens was lost if, as a State Department e-mail during the melee reported, “the compound had been cleared.”
Republicans have seized on that e-mail and another sent about 25 minutes after the assault started that said the mission was “under attack” as proof that the administration knew the assault was violent from the start. U.S. officials yesterday confirmed the authenticity of the e-mails.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said another e-mail two hours after the attack reporting that an extremist group had claimed credit for it on Facebook “is not in and of itself evidence.”
“I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be,” she said.
A review board Clinton named to investigate will look “at everything” instead of “cherry-picking one story here or one document there,” she said.
Republicans are citing the e-mails in support of a political line of attack against President Barack Obama by challenger Mitt Romney and campaign surrogates.
“There was no demonstration involved; it was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people,” Romney said at the town hall debate with Obama on Oct. 16. “Whether there was some misleading or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, I think you have to ask yourself why didn’t we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney, traveling with Obama, said yesterday that the e-mails are just a fraction of the evidence the administration was collecting during and immediately after the attack.
“There were e-mails about all sorts of information that was becoming available in the aftermath of the attack,” Carney said.
Administration and congressional officials who have reviewed the reports say that’s true, and they confirm that the early reporting described the attack as a spontaneous action inspired by protests next door in Egypt against an anti-Muslim video.
The early reports don’t support the description of a peaceful demonstration taking place that was hijacked by terrorists, as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said on Sept. 16. The officials requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the politically charged topic.
A report in one of the e-mails that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the assault proves nothing, said one of the officials, who said many if not most such claims for terrorist attacks are bogus.
For that reason and because of the confusion surrounding what was happening, all the contemporaneous reports carried the customary bureaucratic caveats that the information they contained was preliminary, incomplete, fragmentary and subject to revision, the officials said.
That, the officials said, leaves open the question of why Rice and other administration spokesmen didn’t simply say there were conflicting reports, the details were unclear and the president was determined to track down those responsible for the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans.
Better information, on the attack at least, may be forthcoming. The Tunisian government has arrested a 28-year-old Tunisian man, Ali Harzi, in connection with the Benghazi assault, according to the Associated Press. U.S. officials had no comment.
Congressional and media inquiries have produced a number of diplomatic cables and other messages from Stevens and security officers at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, warning through the spring and summer that more security was needed and, separately, that the situation in Benghazi was deteriorating.
It’s still not clear, though, whether Stevens asked Washington for more armed guards, weapons, armored vehicles and higher walls in Tripoli and in Benghazi, the officials said. They declined to discuss whether he sent priority “Roger Channel” or “Exdis” (exclusive distribution) cables to Clinton seeking reinforcements, saying the review board headed by former high-ranking diplomat Thomas Pickering will investigate all communications from Stevens.
U.S. officials who knew Stevens have said that, while he was aware of the dangers surrounding his mission, he preferred to operate in the open and meet with ordinary Libyans. On the night of his death, in fact, he walked his last guest, a Turkish visitor, to the front gate of the U.S. compound in Benghazi, they said.
Finally, the circumstances of Stevens’s death remain murky. Libyan eyewitnesses have said they found him near death in a smoke-filled safe room in the compound and took him by car to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
One of the e-mails first obtained by the Associated Press and other news organizations, though, reported about 90 minutes after the attack began that it had stopped, the compound had been cleared and a “response team” was attempting to find missing personnel, presumably including the ambassador.
About that time, Libyan guards in the response team “insisted for everyone’s safety, they needed to evacuate the site,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb told a House panel on Oct. 10. The security team “made a final search for the ambassador before leaving the annex in an armored vehicle,” she said. “They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.”
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