The 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, involved attackers from several major international terrorist networks, according to a bipartisan Senate report released Wednesday that blames the intelligence community and the State Department — and Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens himself — for lapses.
Mr. Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack, which the report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said could have been averted if the State Department had heeded numerous warnings.
But Mr. Stevens himself rejected Defense Department offers of more security, and he never forwarded other warnings from Benghazi to his superiors in Washington, the report concluded.
The 85-page report directly contradicts a New York Times investigation last month that argued no international terrorist groups were involved in the assault, which the paper said was spurred, in part, by an anti-Islam video.
Committee members, led by Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, concluded that video cameras surrounding the compound show no spontaneous protest against the film. They also flatly concluded that fighters loyal to groups with ties to al Qaeda took part in the attack.
“Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the committee said, using the acronyms for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The committee report exposed abysmal security at the Benghazi outpost, including evidence that some of the local guards hired to protect the facility were seen vandalizing or attacking the building in the months before the assault.
Those conclusions could cause political problems for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — though the main report doesn’t mention her and instead places blame for the security lapses on those further down the chain of command. Mrs. Clinton has tangled heatedly with congressional Republicans over the handling of the attack and its aftermath.
In an appendix to the report signed only by Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee’s vice chairman, and five fellow Republicans, the Democratic front-runner for 2016 was directly criticized for her role in the Benghazi affair.
The Republican lawmakers wrote, “the final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities lies with the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. … At the end of the day, she was responsible for ensuring the safety of all Americans serving in our diplomatic facilities. Her failure to do so clearly made a difference in the lives of the four murdered Americans and their families.”
Despite President Obama’s promise to take action, nobody has been arrested as a result of the attack.
Intelligence committee members said part of the problem is that the Libyan government “has not shown the political incentive or will” to go after those responsible for the attack, and locals in Benghazi who have aided the U.S. have regularly turned up dead. As many as 15 people who supported the investigation or otherwise helped the U.S. have been killed since the attack, according to the FBI.
The State Department said it has taken steps to fix security problems at outposts around the globe.
But spokeswoman Marie Harf said it’s not clear how much more could be done in the immediate run-up to the Benghazi assault because no specific intelligence alert had been issued.
“Clearly, we needed to do more with security here. Nobody is saying that we did everything perfectly by any stretch of the imagination,” she said. “But again, we continue to assess and have no information to indicate that there was any significant preplanning involved here. So there was a situation where it looks like bad guys who were already operating there took advantage of a situation.”
The report tries to correct some of the narrative that has emerged since the attack. For example, committee members said that contrary to reports, the U.S. was not the only country to keep its mission in Benghazi open during the summer of 2012 — a claim some administration critics made in questioning why the American outpost remained in such a dangerous place.
The report also clears the military of a number of accusations, including that commanders blocked a relief effort and failed to get assets moving quickly enough. Investigators concluded that troops or aircraft that could have helped in that kind of situation were stationed too far away to come to the rescue.
In one stark revelation, the investigators said Gen. Carter Ham, who was in charge of U.S. Africa Command at the time, offered Mr. Stevens more security by extending the deployment of a military site security team.
The State Department had declined the extension, but Gen. Ham, after reading intelligence warnings, twice asked Mr. Stevens whether he wanted the site security team to remain. The ambassador declined both offers.
Republicans on the committee joined in the report’s conclusions but submitted an addendum saying the findings didn’t go far enough.
The Republican senators said the administration is still stonewalling a request for some documents and that some State Department officials involved in decision-making have refused to testify.
Others gave testimony that contradicted written documents or, in the case of Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, gave testimony that the senators said “was particularly specious.”
“The Obama administration was more of a roadblock than a contributor,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and intelligence committee member.
Republicans also criticized the report for not paying more attention to the role of White House and State Department officials who pushed the intelligence community to blame protests rather than a coordinated terrorist assault.
“It is baffling how a fundamental, unclassified fact that was known to the [intelligence community] from the beginning was only communicated clearly to the American people by the administration after the issue had already been sufficiently muddled to result in confusion,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican and a member of the committee.