The Obama administration’s public versions of events in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya have been riddled with discrepancies, starting soon after the American dead and survivors left behind a charred diplomatic compound and bullet-scarred CIA building in Benghazi.
The administration’s inconsistencies go beyond its false assertion for days afterward that a made-in-America anti-Muslim video spurred “spontaneous” Sept. 11 assaults in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his information officer and two former Navy SEALs were killed.
The House and Senate intelligence committees are scheduled Thursday to hold closed-door hearings on the Benghazi attack – grilling top CIA, FBI and State Department officials – amid Republican charges of a pre-election White House cover-up. Former CIA Director David H. Petraeus also will testify before Congress about the Benghazi attack, appearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a closed-door hearing Friday. A Senate hearing is also likely, though details remained uncertain Wednesday night.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is visiting Australia and will not testify this week.
Key issues include:
• The level of security at the consulate provided by the State Department.
• Officials’ statements about a Benghazi protest that did not occur.
• The availability of U.S. troops to come to the rescue during the assault.
• The nearly monthlong lag in getting FBI investigators into Benghazi.
Still lingering is the issue of an exact timeline for President Obama on Sept. 11 after the White House received a State Department email about 4 p.m. (10 p.m. Libya time) stating that the consulate was under attack. The White House has not said what he was told by his advisers and what orders, if any, he issued during the eight-hour onslaught.
“If you look at the timeline, in retrospect, it’s obvious they were lying through their teeth,” said Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and national security columnist. “It seemed like the truth was being pulled out of them, piece by piece. It reminds me of Watergate. The constant drip, drip, drip.”
Protesters or terrorists?
No larger discrepancy exists than the one surrounding the motive for the attack on the consulate by scores of militants, who used diesel fuel to set fire to its four main buildings.
On Sept. 12, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the White House that a spontaneous demonstration over the Internet video grew into a violent attack. Two days later, Mr. Petraeus echoed that account in closed-door comments to senators, according to news reports.
At the time, Mr. Petraeus had ended an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who was at the center of an FBI investigation over threatening emails to a women she saw as a romantic rival. Conservatives have asked whether the Petraeus scandal prompted the director to toe the administration line. Mr. Petraeus has since resigned.
Senators are expected to ask Mr. Clapper and Mr. Petraeus, who has agreed to testify at another time and place, how they came to their conclusions in the face of facts that did not fit the White House’s rush to dismiss Islamic terrorists as the attackers.
The CIA’s station chief in Tripoli, Libya, immediately branded the attack as the work of militants.
The Defense Intelligence Agency on Sept. 12 briefed the Pentagon that Ansar al-Shariah, a Libyan group linked to al Qaeda, likely carried out the attack. An email from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli that arrived at the White House about 5 p.m. said Ansar al-Shariah had claimed responsibility.
Over the next two days, Libyan security officials told the Western press that the attack was planned to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
In Washington, Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department undersecretary in charge of diplomatic security, told congressional staffers on Sept. 12 that the assault bore all the hallmarks of a well-orchestrated terrorist operation.
Despite the mounting evidence, Mr. Clapper and other Obama officials stuck to the video-made-them-do-it pronouncement, although the president made vague references to terrorism on two occasions.
Perhaps the height of the disconnect occurred Sept. 19, when Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, became the first administration official to testify in public about the attack.
“They were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
That same day at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters: “Right now, I’m saying we don’t have evidence at this point that this was premeditated or preplanned to coincide to happen on a specific date or coincide with that anniversary.”
A senior intelligence official told The Washington Times that Mr. Clapper abandoned the video argument five to six days after the attack and had informed the White House.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters that Mr. Clapper stuck to that opinion for 10 days.
‘This is the way we work’
There is also conflict over a reported demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
The most conspicuous official to back that version is Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who made the Sunday talk-show rounds on Sept. 16 to drive home the point that Libyan demonstrators incensed over the video had turned violent.
“The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today, is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack,” Mrs. Rice said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video.
“People gathered outside the embassy, and then it grew very violent, and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in postrevolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control. But we don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack,” she said.
That may have been consistent with Mr. Clapper’s briefing, but not with a lot of other evidence, including Western press interviews with eyewitnesses who said there were no protesters.
Two weeks later, a State Department official held a conference call with reporters and disowned the public remarks of one of its own. The official said the State Department never concluded that an anti-Muslim video provoked the attack.
“That was not our conclusion,” the official said.
What’s more, the official acknowledged that there had never been a demonstration, spontaneous or otherwise. Security cameras showed no activity outside the consulate walls. Then, at 9:40 p.m. Libya time, streams of armed men began an assault.
Their onrush raised another key question. Why did mission security seem so thin? There were a handful of Libyan private security guards outside the wall. Three members of a friendly militia resided in a barracks inside. Mr. Stevens had five American security guards; ultimately, they were no match for the invaders. Some reports said a Libyan guard joined the attackers.
Two days later at the State Department’s press briefing with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a reporter asserted that “very few” security personnel were there.
“I’m going to reject that,” Mrs. Nuland said. “Let me tell you what I can about the security at our mission in Benghazi. It did include a local Libyan guard force around the outer perimeter. This is the way we work in all of our missions all around the world, that the outer perimeter is the responsibility of the host government.
“There was obviously a physical perimeter barrier, a wall. And then there was a robust American security presence inside the compound,” she said. “This is absolutely consistent with what we have done at a number of missions similar to Benghazi around the world.”
It may have been consistent with missions around the world, but in this case the consulate sat in a city that was becoming home to an increasing number of Islamic militants.
Whistleblowers inside the State Department began leaking internal memos that found their way to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and told a story that differed from the official line.
Personnel on scene told Washington that security was inadequate. Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, an Army Green Beret who headed three site-security teams, said he repeatedly asked to keep them in Libya, but was rebuffed by State Department officials.
“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” testified Col. Wood, whose last men were pulled out a month before the attack. “The situation remained uncertain, and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak.”
Eric Nordstrom, the top diplomatic security officer in Libya that summer, recalled asking his supervisor for 12 officers for Benghazi. He was rebuffed.
In the phone conservation with a superior in Washington, he said, “It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added [to] it by saying, for me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.”
The administration also asserted it had no intelligence that foretold the attack. That may be true, if intelligence means an intercepted phone call or human source.
But if the mounting number of attacks on Western targets before Sept. 11 was deemed as a sign, then the attack on the consulate was predictable.
Militants repeatedly attacked the International Red Cross building. Terrorists planted a bomb at the U.S. Consulate that blew a hole in one wall. Islamists ambushed the British ambassador’s convoy, prompting London to pull all its diplomats out of Benghazi.
“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi,” Col. Wood testified. “We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi.”
Delays all around
There also were conflicting statements from the Pentagon on why U.S. forces never showed up in Benghazi, especially during the long siege on the CIA annex, where the two former SEALs were killed by mortar fire early Sept. 12.
At first, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said no forces were used because he did not have a good picture of conditions on the ground.
He said Sept. 27 that he operated under a “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place. And, as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
But it turns out there were no forces, based on a Pentagon timeline released last week.
Mr. Panetta ordered two special-operations units, one in the U.S., one in Croatia, to position themselves in Sicily, across the Mediterranean from Benghazi. He did not give the order until two to four hours after the attack had begun. The troops did not arrive in Sicily until the night of Sept. 12, more than 12 hours after the last Americans had left the mission and flown to Tripoli.
The Washington Times has reported that U.S. Africa Command, which has military jurisdiction over North Africa, has no quick- reaction force. One is being set up, but is not ready.
Also late in arriving was the FBI. Headquarters in Washington said agents did not show up in Benghazi until Oct. 4 because of security concerns.
But up to that time, Western reporters had rummaged through the charred remains of the consulate unimpeded and found sensitive documents, including Mr. Stevens’ diary. CNN reported that the journal showed the ambassador worried about the rise of violence and Islamic extremism in Benghazi and feared he was on an al Qaeda hit list.
“The timelines put out by the administration make no sense, and it’s extremely curious the administration made little effort to get the FBI into Benghazi in a timely manner to conduct the investigation,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer. “That investigation would have been critical to identifying the people who carried out the attack.”
This week, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, upped the ante by urging House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, to assemble a special bipartisan committee to investigate.
“Too many questions remain surrounding the Benghazi attack and response, and the questions seem to grow by the day,” Mr. Wolf said in a letter.