A U.S. probe of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador and three colleagues faces hurdles including a contaminated crime scene and incomplete intelligence on the assault.
An Federal Bureau of Investigation team visited the burned and looted U.S. diplomatic outpost for the first time today, according to Pentagon spokesman George Little. A U.S. panel on the incident, a so-called Accountability Review Board, held an initial organizational meeting at the State Department, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
In Istanbul, two suspects in the consulate attack, identified as Tunisians, were detained late yesterday at the Ataturk International Airport as they attempted to enter the country using fake passports, Kanal D television said. Neither Turkish authorities nor the U.S. State Department had any immediate comment.
Separately, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said today in Washington that he is “satisfied with the progress” the Justice Department has made in its investigation.
The probe has provided U.S. officials with a better understanding of the incident, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday, vowing that the U.S. would find those responsible for the attack.
“There are continuing questions about what exactly happened in Benghazi on that night three weeks ago,” Clinton said. “We will not rest until we answer those questions and until we track down the terrorists who killed our people.”
Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have faulted President Barack Obama’s administration over its shifting account of the attack. They also say the administration failed to prepare adequately for the possibility of violence on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. House Republicans have set a hearing for Oct. 10 on “security failures” in Benghazi. Representative Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has cited unnamed officials as saying that requests for more protection before the attack had been turned down.
‘Work to Do’
The assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens died, coincided with a wave of protests in Muslim countries over an anti-Islam film made in the U.S. The Obama administration initially tied the attack to a mob action provoked by the film, then later characterized the incident as a terrorist attack.
“We have a lot of work to do to give complete and accurate responses to all the questions and statements that are swirling out there,” Clinton said. “Let’s establish all the facts before we jump to any conclusions.”
While investigators from the FBI had earlier reached Tripoli, the Libyan capital, they didn’t make it until today to Benghazi, where the crime scene was left exposed to contamination and looting for days.
“We’ve had some challenges” securing the site since the attack, Nuland said today.
Members of the FBI team were transported to Benghazi by a U.S. military support team, Little said today.
“They came with six cars with Americans and a lot of police,” Hamid Idris, one of two guards employed by the private Libyan owners of the consulate building, said in an interview today outside the compound. “They arrived at 10 and stayed all the time until six.”
The Americans spent time examining the burned buildings and used a cutting tool to remove small pieces from two burned-out jeeps in the compound,he said.
In Washington, the State Department Accountability Review Board headed by veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas R. Pickering, now vice chairman at Hills & Co., isn’t expected to press its own investigation until after the Nov. 6 election, said an official with knowledge of the board’s likely schedule. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because no one is authorized to speak for the board, which is just getting organized.
One factor the board will have to consider is Stevens’s highly-regarded outreach to ordinary citizens while in Libya, said two State Department officials who worked with him at different times. That personal touch may have exposed the Arabic-speaking envoy to greater risk of attack.
The two officials said that, as some Republicans in Congress have alleged, the State Department, the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies received numerous warnings of Islamic radical stirrings in Benghazi before the Sept. 11 assault. None of the alerts was specific about the time or target, they said.
Still, the warnings included reliable reports to U.S. security officials in Benghazi that Western facilities were under surveillance. It also was well-known that weapons are scattered all over the city, a legacy of the uprising Benghazi helped lead against the late dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.
Nevertheless, the two officials, along with a former State Department official who worked with Stevens for two years, said the ambassador wasn’t the sort of diplomat who coveted dinner party invitations and insisted on having a cordon of bodyguards.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have been forbidden to discuss the Benghazi attack publicly.
Two Republican lawmakers said in an Oct. 2 letter to Clinton that U.S. officials in Libya had sought more security in Benghazi before the attacks and were spurned by counterparts in Washington. Issa and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah wrote that the information came from “multiple U.S. federal government officials” they didn’t name.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said the administration’s handling of the incident epitomized its flawed policies. “It is part of a bigger picture of the fact that the Obama foreign policy is unraveling literally before our eyes on our TV screens,” Ryan said Sept. 30 on “Fox News Sunday.”
Some Republicans have charged that security at two U.S. compounds in Benghazi was insufficient, especially when Stevens was making a public visit there. The three officials said that Stevens, like many other American diplomats, didn’t think he could do his job from behind the walls of a fortress.
Libyans in Benghazi and U.S. intelligence officials say they already have convincing evidence that a local militia group, Ansar al-Shariah, carried out the assault. A spokesman for the group denied responsibility for the attack to a Bloomberg reporter in Benghazi.
At least four suspects are in Libyan custody, and three U.S. officials said yesterday the country’s new government has good reason to pursue them and dismantle Ansar, which advocates an Islamic state and opposes the elected National Congress. Two of the officials said it may be better for both Libya and the U.S. to leave prosecution of the attackers to the Libyan government, with the U.S. remaining offstage.
What isn’t clear, the three officials said, is whether the Libyan group has any operational ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a loose-knit and self-sufficient extremist group that has made inroads in Niger, Mali and other North African nations.
Two other U.S. officials said that there is no compelling evidence so far from communications intercepts or human sources showing that the North African group played an operational role in the Benghazi attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
Both officials said some known militants, including Muhammed Jamal abu Ahmad, an Egyptian who they said has ties to al-Qaeda groups in Pakistan and Yemen, may have participated in the attack. Still, they said that doesn’t constitute evidence the attack was an al-Qaeda operation, as some Republicans have alleged.
Initial intelligence reports sent to the White House after the attack emphasized their fragmentary and inconclusive nature, according to these two U.S. officials, who are familiar with the documents. Still, officials at the National Security Council who were directing the Obama administration’s public response ignored those cautionary notes.
Instead, both said, U.S. officials, including United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, publicly described the assault as “spontaneous.” The administration was then slow to correct that assertion, despite newer intelligence that supported Republican claims, some of them overblown, that a terrorist attack had killed Stevens, the two officials said.
On Sept. 21, White House spokesman Jay Carney called the assault a “terrorist attack,” and a week later Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office said the attacks appeared to have been deliberate, organized and “carried out by extremists.”