While details of the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya last month may never be fully known, there is ample evidence neither the Obama administration’s initial accounts nor Republican portrayals of the incident are accurate.
The administration has abandoned its early depictions of the assault in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans as the escalation of a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration. Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to tie the attack to a resurgent al-Qaeda that President Barack Obama’s administration failed to detect and deter.
Instead, accounts from U.S. intelligence officials and Benghazi residents, along with evidence in the burned-out American diplomatic compound, point to a hasty and poorly organized act by men with basic military training and access to weapons widely available in Libya.
The Sept. 11 assault has emerged as an issue in the U.S. presidential race, with challenger Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans saying the Obama administration failed to secure the facility in Benghazi properly before the attack and painted a false picture of it for eight days afterward.
The White House was “trying to sell a narrative about the Mideast that the wars are receding and that al-Qaeda was being defeated,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Oct. 14 on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Acknowledging that “an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia” carried out what he called a coordinated attack would undercut the administration’s preferred narrative, he said.
Republicans may find efforts to link the attack to a resuscitated al-Qaeda difficult to sustain. U.S. officials who have reviewed the evidence say the intelligence doesn’t support that version.
There is no intelligence suggesting that either the remaining core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan or its loose affiliates in Yemen and North Africa plotted, financed or directed the attack, which one of the U.S. officials described as amateurish.
Republican assertions that al-Qaeda had a hand in the attack rest in part on the ties that Muhammed Jamal abu Ahmad, a leader of Ansar al-Sharia -- the militia believed to have mounted the attack -- has to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and to its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa. However, the al-Qaeda groups learned of the assault only after one of the attackers called to boast of it, said the officials. A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia has denied the group’s involvement.
The administration has walked away from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s initial description of the attack to television news shows on Sept. 16 as a “spontaneous” response to protests in Egypt over an anti-Islamic video clip that was “hijacked” by extremists.
Instead, two State Department officials told a U.S. House committee last week, it was an armed attack on the compound. Eyewitnesses in Benghazi also have said there was no non-violent demonstration prior to the armed attack.
The most accurate account, based on the evidence so far, is one provided on Sept. 19 by Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the officials said. Olsen called the attack “opportunistic” during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, adding: “What we don’t have is specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”
The types of weapons used and the level of violence don’t indicate a well-planned al-Qaeda operation either, according to the U.S. officials and the physical evidence. Rather than use a car bomb to breach the compound walls quickly, the attackers used a rocket-propelled grenade, which one U.S. official said are as easy to find as couscous in Benghazi.
At the compound, a Bloomberg News reporter counted two bullet holes through the front door and 22 through the back door, along with a few bullet marks on a wall opposite the facility. There is evidence of at least five bullets fired by defenders inside the compound.
Moreover, the attackers failed to get into the building’s safe room, although a window in the room was unlocked. The ambassador died of smoke inhalation after the building was set on fire with diesel fuel. Looters found his body when they climbed through the unsecured window after the attack.
That evidence leaves the administration in the awkward position of publicly describing contingency plans to attack the North African group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with drones or special forces at the same time that officials say they have no actionable intelligence the group is responsible for the Benghazi attack.
Comparing the haphazard assault in Benghazi to attacks such as the two bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1980s, is a stretch, said one of the U.S. officials.
Before the second Beirut attack in 1984, Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorists built a mock-up of the unfinished vehicle barriers protecting the U.S. mission, then practiced driving through them as fast as possible, the official said. In Benghazi, the attackers failed even to surround the compound, allowing U.S. diplomats to escape through the front or back gates, said the official and Benghazi residents.
The evidence also doesn’t suggest that the Benghazi attack evolved from a spur-of-the-moment peaceful protest. Political demonstrations in Libya are almost always preceded by Facebook postings from participants, and there was no mention of the compound attack on the social-media site either before or immediately afterward.
The erroneous reports of a spontaneous protest came in part from former Libyan deputy interior minister Wanis al-Sharif, who said the demonstration had been peaceful until guards at the compound started shooting, though he also blamed the violence on loyalists of fallen Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Al-Sharif was fired a week after the attack.
While intelligence doesn’t support Rice’s description of a spontaneous, initially peaceful protest, it does indicate that the attackers were spurred by demonstrations in neighboring Egypt against the anti-Islamic video. The Libyan extremists didn’t want to sit out a wave of anti-American protests, said one U.S. official.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday tried to defuse criticism that administration officials stuck for several days with a mistaken depiction of the attack. In the wake of such a violent incident, “there’s always going to be confusion” and information about the Benghazi assault has changed over time, she said in an interview with CNN.
“I know that we’re very close to an election,” said Clinton, who was interviewed during a visit to Lima, Peru. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”
The political firefight over the attack has intensified as the Nov. 6 election nears. The Romney campaign is accusing Obama of weakening American interests abroad at the same time he has failed to boost the economy back home.
During the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden defended the administration’s performance, saying the White House wasn’t aware of any requests for added security in Benghazi. A day later, Romney chastised Biden, citing congressional testimony from State Department officials who said the post had sought additional protection.
Clinton told CNN yesterday that she accepts responsibility for security conditions at the Benghazi compound before the attack and that Obama and Biden shouldn’t shouldn’t be blamed. “The president and the vice president certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals,” she said.
Graham and two other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee last night called Clinton’s acceptance of responsibility a “laudable gesture” while criticizing the White House for not doing the same.
“The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief,” Graham and Senators John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in an e-mailed statement.
The father of Chris Stevens said his son’s death shouldn’t be turned into fodder for the presidential race.
“It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue,” Jan Stevens, 77, said in an Oct 13 telephone interview from his home in Loomis, California, as he prepared for a memorial service for his son next week.
Still, the administration’s handling of the attack will come under scrutiny as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a State Department panel and several congressional committees conduct inquiries into what happened.
California Republican Representative Darrell Issa, whose House Oversight Committee held one hearing on the events last week, said he will lead a congressional delegation to North Africa after the election to investigate the safety of U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Senators Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, announced yesterday that their Homeland Security Committee would conduct a bipartisan inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the attack.
One question that is likely to arise is whether Stevens wanted more armed guards and higher walls. He was highly regarded because he preferred more openness and freer contact with local people, the U.S. officials said.
“There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely,” Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence official, wrote in an Oct. 1 blog post on The National Interest website.
The partisan debate is feeding public misunderstanding of foreign events and the nature of diplomatic and intelligence work, Pillar said in a telephone interview.
“The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose,” he wrote in his blog.