A look at the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and the controversy that followed.
Before The Attack: February 2011-Sept. 10, 2012
A few weeks after an uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi began in February 2011, U.S. envoy Chris Stevens arrives in Benghazi by cargo ship on April 5. He leads a team that makes contacts with the Libyan rebels. Gadhafi is driven from the capital Tripoli in August and is killed in October. Stevens is named ambassador to Libya, based in Tripoli, in May 2012.
U.S. security personnel working in Libya later say they recommended adding more security in the months preceding the attack, but the requests were turned down. A local militia leader says he warned U.S. officials of the deteriorating security in Benghazi on Sept. 9. Stevens arrives in Benghazi on Sept. 10 for meetings.
The Attack: Sept. 11, 2012
The U.S. consulate first reports being under attack at about 9:40 p.m. local time, according to later State Department accounts. After gaining access to the compound, the attackers set fire to a building where Stevens and information management officer Sean Smith are sheltered in a fortified save haven.
The building fills with smoke and flames. Smith’s body is recovered by diplomatic security agents; Stevens cannot be found. A small U.S. security team and Libyan forces arrive on scene. After continued searching for Stevens, the surviving Americans evacuate the compound and head to a nearby CIA annex, which also comes under attack.
Two former Navy SEALs, acting as CIA security contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, are killed in that attack. Later, all of the Americans, including a team that has arrived from Tripoli, leave Benghazi on two flights. Stevens’ body is returned to U.S. custody at the airport from a hospital where he had been taken by Libyans.
Initial Assessments: September
News of the attacks spreads against the backdrop of two other major stories: protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. presidential campaign. The Cairo protests, which took place just hours before the attack in Benghazi, were sparked by anger over an anti-Muslim video made in the United States. In the following days, angry demonstrations are held at U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the Muslim world.
Initial reports from journalists in Libya also link the Benghazi attack to the video, and remarks from U.S. officials seem to lay blame there as well. On Sept. 12, President Obama says in his Rose Garden remarks about the attack: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.” He also makes a general reference to terrorism, saying, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
In her remarks on the same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says: “We are working to determine the precise motivations and methods of those who carried out this assault. Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” In a State Department briefing that day, however, officials say they don’t have information about whether there were protests related to the video at the Benghazi compound at the time of the attack.
In the following days, some witnesses tell NPR there was no protest before the attack, and Libyan government officials say the attack was planned.
“The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous,” Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif tells NPR on Sept. 16. “We firmly believe that this was a precalculated, preplanned attack that was carried out specifically to attack the U.S. Consulate.”
On the same day, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appears on behalf of the Obama administration on five Sunday talk shows and indicates the attack began as a spontaneous protest over the video. She and other administration officials later say her account was based on talking points provided by the intelligence community.
According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who read from the talking points on Capitol Hill, the document said: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the United States embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.”
In the wake of the attack, lawmakers on Capitol Hill hold hearings to investigate. In his testimony at a hearing Sept. 19, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, refers to the violence as “a terrorist attack” and allows that al-Qaida might have played some role. In the days after Olsen’s testimony, Clinton and White House spokesman Jay Carney also call the assault “a terrorist attack.” Clinton also suggests a possible link with an al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa.
Capitol Hill Controversy: October
On Oct. 2, Republicans looking into the attack send a letter to Clinton outlining previous threats and attacks in Libya and asking about security there. Ahead of a House hearing, the State Department briefs reporters Oct. 9, laying out a narrative of the attacks and saying there was “nothing unusual during the day at all outside” the diplomatic post. When asked what led officials to initially believe the attacks began with protests against the video, a senior official says, “That was not our conclusion.”
During the Oct. 10 hearing, the leader of a U.S. security team in Libya testifies that attacks against Westerners were increasing before the Sept. 11 strike. A State Department regional security officer says he recommended additional guards, although he also says in his prepared testimony: “Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra-half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb testifies: “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11, for what had been agreed upon.”
At an Oct. 11 vice presidential debate, Joe Biden says of Benghazi: “We weren’t told they wanted more security.” Clinton takes responsibility for the attack a few days later, telling CNN, “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world — 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”
Post-Election Wrangling: November
In the wake of Obama’s re-election, three Republican senators — John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte — call for a Watergate-style panel to investigate the Benghazi attack on Nov. 14. They also pledge to block Rice if the president nominates her to replace Clinton as secretary of state, criticizing the way Rice characterized the attack in her media appearances Sept. 16.
Obama angrily defends Rice in a news conference later the same day, saying: “She made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her. If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”
Two days later, former CIA Director David Petraeus, who stepped down days after the election because of an extramarital affair, tells lawmakers in a closed-door hearing that he always thought the attack was a terrorist strike. But he also says the White House did not politicize the process of determining what could be said, lawmakers report. And his testimony supports the view that Rice didn’t deliberately mislead with her remarks, they say.
Still, Republicans say they want answers about whether Rice tried to spin the account of the attack to avoid talking about terrorism during an election season. After a series of meetings with Rice during the week of Nov. 26, GOP senators say they’re more concerned than ever about what she said after the attack.
On Dec. 13, Rice sends a letter to the president asking that he not consider her for the secretary of state post. She says she is “now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.”