President Barack Obama pledged a nation’s resolve to “dignity and freedom” as he received and honored the remains of the four Americans killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
Libyan and American investigators are probing the assault that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three others: Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information officer, and Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, two former Navy SEALs working as security personnel at the consulate in Benghazi.
“There is no doubt these are difficult days,” Obama told an audience of more than 200 yesterday in an open hangar at Andrews Air Force Base. “In moments such as this, so much anger and violence, even the hopeful among us must wonder,” he said. “The United States of America will never retreat from the world. We will never stop working for the dignity and freedom that every person deserves.”
The president saluted those who died, reciting their names.
“Chris Stevens was everything America could want as an ambassador,” Obama told the audience. “In Benghazi, he laid down his life for his friends, Libyan and American,” he said. “Four Americans, four patriots, they loved this country and they chose to serve it, and they served it well.”
Families of the Americans who died in the attack on the consulate had assembled in a distinguished visitors lounge at the base, which serves as home for Air Force One, with American and Air Force flags flying at half-staff.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, chief of the American diplomatic corps that lost a devoted, career envoy and three others, joined them for what is officially called a transfer of remains ceremony.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delayed the start of a campaign rally in Painesville, Ohio, so he could watch the arrival of the remains. Standing with his hand over his heart, he led a rain-drenched crowd in a moment of silence to recognize “the blood shed for freedom.”
Colonel Michael Minihan, 89th Air Wing commander at Andrews, greeted and briefed the president, joined by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, and they traveled to a hangar holding the Americans’ remains.
Four black hearses, their tail doors open to the audience in the hangar and service members standing beside them, parked in pairs in a row flanking the podium where the president would speak with a large American flag hanging behind him. Four black platforms were arranged before them on the floor.
Obama walked in followed by Vice President Joe Biden and took a seat in the front row. A hulking gray C-17 transport stood outside the gaping entrance to Hangar Three. Four teams of seven honor guards carried the flag-draped coffins and placed them on the platforms in front of the hearses.
Obama, Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell sat in the front row of the audience.
Clinton spoke first.
“Today we bring home four Americans who gave their lives for our country and our values,” Clinton said, naming one by one the victims and the names of their families.
The secretary thanked Stevens’s parents for their “gift” to a nation. She named Smith, who left a wife, Heather, and two young children, Samantha and Nathan. Woods served two decades as a SEAL and was a registered nurse, a warrior with “the hands of a healer,” Clinton said. He left a wife, Dorothy, and three sons, Tyrone Jr., Hunter and Kai. Doherty, another SEAL, had “deployed to some of the most dangerous places on earth,” she said.
The “rage and violence” in Libya was prompted by an Internet video that the American government had nothing to do with, Clinton told the audience. “It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable,” she said.
As a military brass band played “America the Beautiful,” the honor guards placed the coffins inside the hearses, and the cars rolled out of the hangar to the saluting guard.
The attack coincided with protests against a film made in the U.S. ridiculing the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
The weapons, violence and duration of the attacks, two U.S. intelligence officials said, suggest that it was carried out by radical Islamists, perhaps to avenge the June death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in a U.S. drone attack or to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Stevens, 52, was killed trying to evacuate the consulate. Known to friends, family and colleagues as Chris, the California native was an Arabic-speaking, 21-year veteran of the State Department who had postings in Damascus, Cairo and other Middle Eastern stations before his first stint in Libya from 2007 to 2009.
Stevens, the No. 2 diplomat in Tripoli when the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was still in power, traveled to Benghazi in 2011 as an observer for U.S. policy makers trying to gauge how to respond to the rebellion under way and avert a massacre in that city by Qaddafi forces. He was promoted to ambassador after the dictator was killed by rebels.