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.
Then on Sept. 19, Matthew Olson, director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, told a Senate hearing that Mr. Stevens and the others had died “in the course of a terrorist attack” on the consulate, although he added that there was no intelligence the assault was pre-planned.
The following day, President Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney for the first time used the word “terrorist” to describe the attack, but in his address to the United Nations Sept. 25, President Obama avoided the term, although he discussed the attack at some length.
Instead he referred to “attacks on the civilians in Benghazi,” pledging “we will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice.”
In the heated atmosphere of a presidential election campaign, Republicans are likely to seize on the administration’s changing narrative at Wednesday’s hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
According to committee staffers, Mr. Nordstrom likely will testify that his requests were ignored despite there having been several attacks in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya in the previous months.
Those attacks “targeted diplomatic missions and underscored the [government of Libya’s] inability to secure and protect diplomatic missions,” Mr. Nordstrom wrote in an email last week. The email was provided by committee’s Republican staff.
The State Department official pushed back against the suggestion that there was too little security in Benghazi.
“The lethality and the numbers of armed people was unprecedented … in recent diplomatic history,” the official said. ”There had been no attacks like it in Libya.”
Several former State Department officials have told The Washington Times that any reasonable security presence in Benghazi would have been overwhelmed by the attack by dozens of extremists, armed with heavy weapons who stormed the consulate compound in SUVs.
In his email, Mr. Nordstrom wrote that he and the embassy had told Washington they needed more security personnel and wanted a 16-member special forces unit assigned to the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli to stay until the fall. But the team was withdrawn over the summer.
The government of Libya “was overwhelmed and could not guarantee our protection,” Mr. Nordstrom added.
Libya was “certainly not an environment where [the diplomatic] post should be directed to ‘normalize’ operations and reduce security resources in accordance with an artificial timetable,” he said.
A Republican staffer said normalization “referred to a desire by senior State officials to create a perception that the situation in Libya was improving” less than nine months after a civil war ravaged the country and overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The staffer also said that normalization included “replacing the American security presence with locally trained Libyans.”
Army National Guard Army National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who headed the special forces team, is also scheduled to testify Wednesday. He has also said that Mr. Stevens and other diplomats wanted his team to stay in Tripoli.
Democrats on the committee called the investigation “partisan,” saying they had been excluded from a congressional delegation to Libya and denied access to witnesses and documents. They also said the committee had not received a classified briefing.
The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said he is concerned that the committee is “rushing to hold a public hearing based on incomplete information,” although he added that he supported “responsible and robust congressional oversight.”
A memo prepared for committee Democrats noted that Republicans supported large cuts to the State Department’s embassy security budget request.
Also testifying Wednesday will be Charlene R. Lamb, an official from the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and Patrick Kennedy, the department’s undersecretary for management.