Senior officials at the State Department on Tuesday night presented a greatly revised account of the events surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, abandoning earlier assertions that the assault had grown out of a protests against an anti-Islam film.
The shift in narrative from the State Department comes amid revelations the Obama administration told U.S. diplomats during the months leading up to the attack to draw down security in Libya in an effort to show that life was returning to normal after the revolution that shook the North African nation last year.
Eric Nordstrom, who headed diplomatic security in Libya until June, is expected to testify Wednesday before a House committee examining the attacks that he made two requests to Washington for additional security personnel to be posted at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, but received no response.
Senior State Department officials, meanwhile, now say the Sept. 11 evening was a quiet one in Benghazi that became very suddenly violent about 9:40 p.m. when officials at the compound heard “gunfire and explosions.”
Within seconds, a camera monitoring the main gate of the compound revealed “a large number of men, armed men flowing” through the gates, one of the senior State Department official said on a Tuesday night conference call on the condition of anonymity.
The officials described an intense series of events in which the compound’s main building was set ablaze while a firefight ensued outside. Four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.
The State Department officials said Mr. Stevens was quickly rushed to a “safe haven” inside the structure, but in the chaos of the moment, with thick black smoke pouring in, was separated from security personnel who ultimately fled the scene in an armored vehicle under heavy machine-gun fire.
The vehicle encountered more machine gunfire before weaving head-on into downtown Benghazi traffic, said one senior State Department official, who added that investigators still are uncertain precisely how Mr. Stevens died.
At some point during the violence, he was taken to a hospital and his body was later delivered to U.S. officials fleeing the city at Benghazi airport.
“We do not know exactly how the ambassador got to the hospital. That’s one of the bits of information that we’re trying to resolve in the ongoing investigation,” said one senior State Department official, who added that a hospital employee used Mr. Stevens‘ mobile telephone to connect with the Americans.
“Someone at the hospital just started calling numbers on his cell phone,” the official said. He and his colleagues spoke on condition of anonymity in a conference call for reporters.
The description of what transpired throws dramatic new twists into the changing picture of the Benghazi attack that Obama administration have fumbled to present. The Obama administration had said the attack was a spontaneous response to the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims”; it later claimed there was a protest against the film that terrorists suspected of al Qaeda links took advantage of to launch their attack.
When asked about those varying explanations, the State Department official said “that was not our conclusion” and that unspecified “others” could answer for their words.
The assault, which coincided with the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, occurred as protests were raging in cities across the Arab and Muslim worlds against the inflammatory anti-Islam Internet video, Innocence of Muslims.
For more than a week following the events in Benghazi, administration officials, in particular U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, maintained that initial reports suggested the attack was a spontaneous reaction to the video.