Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal; how the story of a U.S. tragedy unfolded — and then fell apart
The Pentagon maintains that its standoffish approach was correct, even as it tries to prevent a repeat. It has positioned a fast-reaction force in Spain and has given U.S. Africa Command its own emergency Army Special Forces team — something it lacked on that September day.
Sept. 11, 2012
The seeds of the tragedy began well before the assault.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion that toppled Moammar Gadhafi, was becoming an increasingly violent place. Extremists carried out at least 20 attacks on foreign targets, most of them Western, including the U.S. mission, where a bomb tore a hole in a security wall. The U.S. intelligence community had produced several well-circulated memos on the likely presence of al Qaeda in the area.
Yet, as violence rose, the number of security personnel to protect American diplomats fell despite embassy pleas for more. Three U.S. Army site security teams left, the last one a month before the attack. The State Department also took away the embassy’s sole airplane.
Just as troubling, the people whom the State Department appointed to provide security were unreliable. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade, which fought Gadhafi, had ties to Ansar al-Shariah. The brigade also became disgruntled over pay and refused at times to do its job.
Eric Nordstrom, at the time the regional security officer in Libya, later told congressional investigators that he fought with Foggy Bottom when he asked a supervisor to send 12 more officers. Rebuffed, he told his superior during a telephone call, “For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.”
Stevens seemed to sense an assault was coming. He wrote a cable Aug. 16 to State describing a rise in violence and asking for security help. None came. The last site-security team left.
The attack seemed to come from everywhere at 9:40 p.m. local time. Dozens of armed men stormed the mission’s walls, found fuel cans and starting setting fires. The militia and private Libyan guards ran off.
Twenty minutes later, the State Department sent an email to the White House National Security Council staff. It said the mission was under attack and that Ansar al-Shariah was taking credit. There was no mention of a demonstration. In fact, there is no communication from the mission at any time that night about a demonstration — though one erupted outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day.
Stevens, Smith and one security officer holed up in Villa C. But as it filled with smoke, the officer, with his hands and knees on the floor, tried to lead the two diplomats to safety through a window. Smith was found dead in the villa.
Security personnel later determined that Stevens had been taken to a Benghazi hospital, where doctors tried to resuscitate him before declaring him dead. The State Department’s accountability review board said the ambassador died of “apparent smoke inhalation.”
Around midnight, a group at the annex, a base for the CIA to search for Gadhafi’s weapons of mass destruction and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, launched a dangerous rescue trip to the embassy. They made it back and waited for help. None came — for at least five hours.
Sept. 12, 2012
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