The Hot Seat

What you need to know about Benghazi going into this week's congressional hearings.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The election might be over, but the Benghazi fiasco isn’t — not nearly. Congress is gearing up this week for another round of hearings on the Sept. 11 attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In total, four House and Senate panels are due to hold closed-door briefings this week, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), expected to kick things off on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.

In the two months since Ambassador Stevens’s death, a dizzying amount of information — some of it contradictory — has emerged about the security situation in Benghazi and the administration’s handling of the attack. Here’s a guide to what we know, what we don’t, and what’s likely to come up as lawmakers try to get to the bottom of it all this week.

Protest or planned attack?

In the immediate aftermath of the consular attack, President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials generally portrayed the incident as a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim YouTube video that had sparked protests across the Middle East. In his initial remarks from the Rose Garden, Obama said that "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," but did not directly refer to the attack as a terrorist plot. (He was more explicit a day later.)

Soon after, White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration had any "actionable intelligence" that the attack was "planned or imminent." On "Face the Nation" on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told Bob Schieffer that the attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo." Her remarks were caveated, and according to the New York Times, she was merely repeating talking points given to her by the CIA. Moreover, one intelligence official insisted to the paper, "The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."

Interestingly, Paula Broadwell, the alleged paramour of David Petraeus, explained in an Oct. 26 talk why the CIA director may have been concerned about the link between those protests and what happened in Benghazi. "[I]f you remember at the time — the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo — there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world," she said. "Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us."

She added: "So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton’s shoes or the president’s shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it’s true that we have signal intelligence that shows the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort."

The administration’s initial account also dovetailed with early reports from the New York Times and Reuters, which placed unarmed demonstrators as well as armed assailants outside the consulate in Benghazi. As Reuters reported, "The attackers were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad." By Sept. 20, however, the administration had clearly acknowledged that the attack was indeed a terrorist attack and on Oct. 9, State Department officials said that the supposed protest outside the consulate never occurred. Currently, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that some combination of three militant groups was behind the consular attack: Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamal Network.

The administration’s mischaracterization of events — which its critics have attributed to political calculations — is sure to come up at the hearings, as is the apparently poor intelligence with which the administration was working. Even if no one was intentionally misleading the public, lawmakers will likely want to know why a consulate that was primarily a CIA front did not know what was happening immediately outside its walls — or how the intelligence community could still be feeding the administration bad information weeks after the fact.

We hired who for security?

In addition to the five U.S. diplomatic security agents stationed on the compound and the CIA’s "rapid reaction" team, located at an annex a little more than a mile away, the United States relied on a local militia called the 17th of February Brigade to guard the consulate against intruders. According to the Washington Post, the decision was probably made for lack of a better alternative (international law requires the Libyan government to furnish protection for foreign diplomatic outposts that it’s simply incapable of providing), but it ultimately proved costly.

When assailants breached the diplomatic compound on Sept. 11, the two members of the 17th of February Brigade on duty apparently hid on the roof while their off-duty comrades failed to respond to the CIA’s repeated requests for backup. Given this miserable failure, we should expect questions about the wisdom of trusting a rag-tag collection of militiamen with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — all the more so because McClatchy has reported that, while most embassies hire local security, "only the United States of the 10 or so foreign missions here allowed the local militia to be the first line of defense."

Sparse timelines

Both the CIA and the Pentagon have released timelines of the Benghazi attack, but they are sparse and contain few points of convergence to suggest how or whether they coordinated their responses. (Both timelines also conflict with the accounts of local witnesses, who say the attack began as many as 15 minutes earlier than the United States says it did.)

The Pentagon’s timeline begins simply with: "9:42 p.m. — Armed men begin their assault on the U.S. Consulate." It provides no explanation of how Defense Department officials learned of the attack or whether they were in contact with the CIA’s rapid response team on the ground. The appearance of an unarmed surveillance drone in both timelines suggests some level of cooperation, especially since the CIA’s timeline states that the drone failed to observe the mortars that eventually killed CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, but lawmakers will likely want to fill these and other holes in the current accounting.

Rapid response team told to "stand down"?

In the CIA’s version of events, a State Department security officer at the consulate called the CIA annex to request backup within minutes of the attack, prompting a team to "immediately" begin "gathering weapons and preparing to leave," which it did about 25 minutes later. But Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reported that CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who received the State Department’s request for backup at the annex, were twice told to "stand down" by superiors before they "ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire."

The CIA has vigorously disputed Fox‘s claim: "We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate," a CIA spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. Whether or not there’s any truth to the Fox story, which is based on testimony from anonymous "sources who were on the ground in Benghazi," this discrepancy will likely come up in the congressional hearings. Likewise, lawmakers will likely want to answer one question the Fox report didn’t — namely, who ordered the CIA operatives to "stand down" if, in fact," they were ordered to do so.

Another question that may come up is why, according to the CIA’s timeline, the Global Response Staff team that arrived in Benghazi from Tripoli at 1:15 a.m. did not leave the airport until 4:30 a.m. The timeline explains away the lapse by citing "negotiations with Libyan authorities over permission to leave the airport; obtaining vehicles; and the need to frame a clear mission plan." It’s certainly possible that they were delayed by local authorities, but it seems likely that lawmakers will want to know why a trained military response squad couldn’t negotiate a couple of rental cars in under three hours. Likewise, there are unanswered questions about why reinforcements were needed in the first place. Out of more than 30 employees at the consulate in Benghazi, only seven worked for the State Department. "Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate," according to the Wall Street Journal. If there were so many CIA operatives at the consulate, why did it fall to Doherty and Woods to make a heroic defense of the compound?

Pentagon response

If the CIA’s response to the consular attack remains murky, the Pentagon’s isn’t much clearer — and why the best DOD could manage was an unarmed surveillance drone is almost certain to come up at the hearings this week. According to the Pentagon’s timeline, it took Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta more than three hours after the consulate was breached to order Marine anti-terrorist teams scrambled from Spain and Croatia — and another 40-50 minutes for them to receive formal authorization — meaning that they did not arrive in Libya until almost 24 hours after the attack began. By that time, the consular officials, CIA officers, and contractors had been evacuated along with the bodies of Stevens, Woods, Doherty, and Sean Smith, a technology expert who died alongside the ambassador.

Panetta maintained that the Pentagon did everything in its power to respond in a timely manner, but congressional Republicans have already raised questions about the Defense Department’s handling of the situation. Panetta’s explanation "only confirms what we already knew — that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya," wrote Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and five other senators in a joint statement. But it "fails to address the most important question — why not?" Expect lawmakers to get into why the U.S. Africa Command did not have a Commanders’ In-Extremis Force, or C.I.F., on hand, and why no armed drones or gunships were readily accessible.

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