On the last day of his life, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens retired to his room in the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya at about 9 p.m. after a quiet day.
Forty minutes later, security agents heard gunfire and explosions near the front gate of the compound, which recently had been reinforced with nine-foot walls and concrete Jersey barriers, two State Department officials told reporters yesterday.
Their narrative of what happened on the night of Sept. 11 is the first detailed account of how Stevens died, and it contradicts the Obama administration’s initial contention that the attack began as a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video clip. The officials also offered the first detailed description of the compound’s and Stevens’ security, which are the focus of a hearing today by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told television news programs on Sept. 16 that intelligence at that point showed the attack started as “a spontaneous, not premeditated response” to demonstrations in Egypt over a “very offensive video.” Then it “seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists,” she said.
The officials who described the attack yesterday, though, said the State Department never concluded that it began as a protest over the video. There were no protests at or near the compound that day, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity while the incident remains under investigation.
While the account is certain to add fuel to the partisan battle over preparations for and response to the attack by President Barack Obama’s administration, it also is a vivid description of the final hours of one of the nation’s most highly regarded diplomats and three other Americans.
The attack came suddenly, the two officials said. The post’s security cameras showed a large number of armed men storming the compound, which is about three football fields long and 100 yards wide, said the officials, who’ve reviewed reports of the assault.
The attackers immediately set fire to the building known as the barracks, which housed the compound’s Libyan guards. Then they penetrated the building where Stevens was staying during a visit to Benghazi from Tripoli, the Libyan capital. It contained a protected “safe haven” walled off by a metal grill with locks, the officials said.
The attackers looked through the grill and saw nothing. They couldn’t break the locks to enter the safe haven, and though no one got in, a security agent with Stevens was prepared to shoot anyone who did.
Instead, the attackers poured diesel fuel in and around the building and set it on fire, according to the two officials.
Stevens was trapped in the burning building as it quickly filled with smoke. By the time the intruders left, the officials said, it was difficult to see or breathe. The ambassador, along with Sean Smith, a foreign-service information officer, and the security agent moved to a bathroom with a window in an attempt to get air.
The three men were on the bathroom floor, desperate for air, when they decided they needed to leave the building. The security agent later told State Department officials that he wasn’t able to see three feet in front of him.
With dozens of armed attackers still at the compound, the agent led Stevens and Smith to a bedroom that had a window exit as more shooting and explosions could be heard outside and tracer bullets pierced the night.
The agent, barely able to breathe, escaped through the bedroom window, only to discover that Stevens and Smith were no longer with him.
The agent re-entered the building several times in an attempt to find the two men. He never did. He finally staggered up a ladder to the roof, where he radioed other security agents for help, though he could barely speak, the two officials said.
The other agents, scattered at two different structures in the compound, drove to the ambassador’s building in an armored vehicle and made repeated attempts to feel their way through the smoke and fire to find Stevens and Smith.
When they found Smith, the information officer was dead. The ambassador was still missing.
Security at the compound consisted of five diplomatic security special agents and four Libyans who were members of the Feb. 17 Brigades, a militia assisting the Libyan government, the two officials said.
Then a so-called quick reaction security team, housed in an annex about 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) from the compound, arrived.
As the additional agents tried to secure the building’s perimeter, they also made repeated attempts to find Stevens. One agent took off his shirt, dipped it into the compound’s swimming pool, and put it back on before heading into the smoke-filled building, the two officials said.
Fearing for their safety, the agents decided they had to evacuate the compound and get to the annex. They piled into the armored vehicle with Smith’s corpse and made their way out the main gate, the two officials said.
With traffic clogging the road, the vehicle was going about 15 miles an hour when a group of men met them and signaled for them to turn. The armored vehicle then was attacked with AK-47 rifle fire and hand grenades. The vehicle kept rolling with two flat tires.
It eventually reached the annex, where agents took up firing positions on the roof. The annex then took intermittent fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades for several hours, the officials said.
Reinforcements from Tripoli, some 400 miles away, who had been called when the attack began, then arrived and made their way to the annex.
At about 4 a.m., the two officials said, the annex took mortar fire. Some rounds landed on the roof, killing two agents and severely wounding another. Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, two former Navy SEALs working as security personnel, were the other Americans killed in Benghazi.
The remaining agents then decided to evacuate the annex and made their way to the Benghazi airport, where they were evacuated on two flights.
The two officials said yesterday they still don’t know how Stevens, 52, made it to the Benghazi Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. He was brought to the city’s largest hospital in a private car driven by unknown Libyan civilians some time after 1 a.m. on Sept. 12, hospital director Dr. Fathi al Jehani said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Hospital staff members informed the embassy of his death after they picked his mobile phone out of his pocket and dialed numbers on it, the two State Department officials said.
The House committee, led by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, will examine the State Department’s account of the attack today. In an Oct. 2 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said “the U.S. mission in Libya made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi” and “were denied these resources by officials in Washington.”
The committee staff yesterday released a redacted e-mail message from Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer who was based in Libya, who objected to what he described as a reduction in security personnel at the consulate.
In the e-mail, Nordstrom said the security situation in Libya was “not an environment where post should be directed to ‘normalize’ operations and reduce security resources in accordance with an artificial time table.”
The State Department, in an earlier statement, said it had “maintained a constant level of security capability” at the consulate.
“There was a clear disconnect between what security officials on the ground felt they needed and what officials in Washington would approve,” Issa said in a statement yesterday.
The State Department officials suggested yesterday that no amount of security typically provided for a consulate would have prevented the Benghazi attack, which they described as unprecedented in recent diplomatic history.
The administration has retreated from Rice’s initial description of the attack as a product of a demonstration against the anti-Muslim video clip, which was seconded by White House press secretary Jay Carney and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Finally, in an e-mailed statement on Sept. 28, Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence, said: “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.”
The attack is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a separate State Department panel.
Speaking yesterday at Geoint, an annual conference of intelligence officials in Orlando, Florida, sponsored by the National Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the U.S. had no specific tactical warning of the attack. American eavesdropping and reconnaissance agencies didn’t overhear or observe the attackers discussing their plans, he said.
The Libya attack and the shifting accounts of it have become fodder in the presidential campaign. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a foreign policy address on Oct. 8 that the incident “cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long.”