WASHINGTON, D.C.–For many Americans the Sept. 11 attack that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other members of the U.S. diplomatic mission faded into the background as September moved toward the November elections.
Now that President Barack Obama has secured a second term, the administration’s storyline has started to unravel. In mid-November, former CIA Director David Petraeus testified to congressional lawmakers that the CIA’s original talking points written in the immediate aftermath of the incident labeled the raid a terrorist attack, though those references did not show up in official pronouncements at the time. Petraeus told members of the House and Senate intelligence communities before the Thanksgiving recess that he wasn’t sure which federal agency deleted the terrorist references.
The testimony stoked concerns among Republican lawmakers that the public statements regarding the attack had been politicized by an Obama administration not wanting doubts to surface over its handling of foreign policy as voters went to the polls. Officials in the days after the attack asserted that it was sparked by a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film, Innocence of Muslims. Yet the only available portion of that film, a 14-minute clip, already had been on YouTube for months.
“The video was a political smokescreen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., said Nov. 25. “I don’t believe it was ever the reason for this.”
Political implications surrounding the attack deepened with the sudden resignation of Petraeus last month, and with the likely nomination of U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to become the next secretary of state. Republicans in the Senate are pressing her on the forceful—and now clearly inaccurate—accounts she gave in the event’s immediate aftermath.
Lawmakers are likely to continue to press to know why they were misled, and whether U.S. officials committed perjury before Congress in the process of reporting on the attacks.
“Let’s not stonewall the issue and cover up mistakes, which is what seems to be going on today,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Ca., during a November House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
It may be difficult for Republicans to hold Rice and others accountable for the revised narrative. While Republicans still control the House, it is the Senate where Obama’s top cabinet officials receive confirmation.
Larger questions remain over the inadequate security measures in place in Benghazi. In mid-August, a month before the attacks, intelligence reports said there were as many as 10 al Qaeda–affiliated groups operating in Benghazi. Stevens sent a cable to Washington on the day he was killed warning of the disintegrating situation among militants. (The cable made no mention of the U.S.-made video or planned protests at the consulate.) The area was dangerous enough for the British to close their consulate and for the Red Cross to leave. Yet, according to Petraeus, the consulate security was so light that the attackers could walk in and set it on fire.
Said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: “We know mistakes were made, and we’ve got to learn from that.”
Sept. 11, 2012
3:42 p.m. Washington, D.C., time (10:42 p.m. in Benghazi): U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens was staying overnight, comes under attack.
4:30 p.m. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is alerted that the attack is underway.
6 p.m. Panetta authorizes the deployment of Marine Corps anti-terrorism teams to Benghazi and Tripoli from Rota, Spain, as well as a Europe-based special operations team.
6:30 p.m. A six-member security team from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, departs for Benghazi and arrives about an hour later—almost four hours after the attack began.
11:15 P.M. The adjoining U.S. safe house in Benghazi comes under mortar and rocket fire.
1:40 a.m. The first wave of U.S. personnel in Benghazi evacuates for Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
4 a.m. The second wave evacuates for Tripoli, including the bodies of four Americans.
8:15 a.m. C-17 departs Germany for Tripoli, where it picks up the remains of Stevens and three other Americans.
1:17 p.m. C-17 departs Tripoli.
President Obama departs White House for campaign event in Las Vegas, Nev.
3 p.m. Troops dispatched the previous evening by Panetta arrive, long after the attack has ended and 21 hours after Pentagon authorization.
Evening (in Las Vegas): President Obama tells his audience, “No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. … We have the greatest respect for people of faith. … [T]his video is disgusting and reprehensible.”
1:30 p.m. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tells reporters the U.S. security detail in Benghazi was “not able to locate Ambassador Stevens for many, many hours” and “we don’t have any definitive information of our own” on when or how he died. (To date, no autopsy results have been released.)
Unnamed U.S. official tells CNN the Benghazi violence was a “clearly planned attack,” not an innocent mob. “The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective, but this was a clearly planned military-type attack.”
State Department puts out Warden Messages (warnings to Americans living abroad) via 60 U.S. embassies warning of protests and unrest related to the film, Innocence of Muslims, and condemning the film.
White House spokesman Jay Carney: “We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice appears on four Sunday morning talk shows with essentially the same message: “What sparked the violence was a very hateful video on the internet,” Rice said. “It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States.” She called the attacks, which started in Egypt and spread to more than 20 U.S. posts in the region, “spontaneous,” not planned or timed for the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks: “The best information and the best assessment we have today is that this was not a pre-planned, premeditated attack.”
Obama: “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.”
Eric Nordstrom, the State Department’s former regional security officer for Libya, tells lawmakers he had asked for 12 additional agents for the U.S. mission in Benghazi prior to the attack. “For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building,” he told officials who he says rejected his request.
Petraeus biographer Paula Broadwell speaks at University of Denver, saying Libyan militants attacked the Benghazi post because the CIA “had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner” and that Petraeus “is not allowed to communicate with the press.”
Petraeus resigns as CIA director.
Petraeus tells Congress in closed-door sessions he has maintained from the earliest days that there was “significant terrorist involvement” in the Sept. 11 attack.