Questions continue to swirl around the attack on the American consulate in Libya in September that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.
It’s been fodder for the presidential campaign and a source of interest on Capitol Hill.
The questions essentially boil down to what did the Obama administration officials know about the attack in Benghazi as it was happening, and how quickly did they know it. The problem has been separating fact from spin during a period of high-stakes politics.
Here are the central facts: On Sept. 11, an unknown number of militants attacked and overran the consulate in Benghazi. The attack focused first on the consulate and later on what has been called an annex, but according to press reports was a CIA intelligence office. When the smoke and dust cleared early Sept. 12, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, computer expert Sean Smith, and private security contractors – and former Navy SEALs – Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were dead.
Some of what happened that night remains clouded by the fog of war, or colored by partisan politics. Investigations are underway by the State Department, the FBI and Congress.
Q: Why wasn’t the consulate better protected?
A: There is no definitive answer to this yet. Various media reports indicate that officials, including Stevens, had expressed concerns about the level of security for the consulate. Consulate security is an internal State Department issue. The consulate relied on local security, a common practice for State’s diplomatic outposts around the world.
The Benghazi consulate had been using the Libyan 17th February Brigade and had reportedly been satisfied with its work.
International law, in fact, demands that outside a mission’s walls, all diplomatic security be provided by the host government. It is known that given the fledgling nature of Libya’s security services, it was common for even the government to rely on private militias for security. Emails recently reported on by Foreign Policy magazine indicate that Stevens had requested additional Libyan security and was not convinced that Libya had provided what he wanted.
Q: Was the U.S. security team from the CIA annex told to stand down during the attack?
A: State Department official Charlene Lamb told Congress: “The annex . . . reaction security team arrived with approximately 40 members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade. They encountered heavy resistance as they approached the compound. Together with the Diplomatic Security agents, they helped secure the area around the main building and continued the search for the ambassador, again making several trips into the building at their own peril."
Moreover, a CIA timeline released late Thursday indicates that the CIA security team left the annex for the consulate mission less than 25 minutes after the initial warning about the attack
Q: Why was there no response to the attack by the U.S. military?
A: Media reports put the nearest possible U.S. troops capable of staging a rescue about 470 miles away, at the Sigonella Naval Air Station in southern Italy.
Defense Department officials have said little about their lack of response, beyond noting that they lacked the necessary intelligence information needed to launch any type of rescue mission
But using government records and conversations at the Pentagon about capabilities of various aircraft, no troops would have been within helicopter range. If troops were coming from Sigonella, the most likely means of transport would have been by a C-130 cargo plane, which could have made the trip in about an hour, from wheels up to landing.
But a C-130 transport plane requires a landing strip, meaning it would have landed at Benghazi’s airport, as C-130s did when bringing in FBI agents about a month after the attack. However, U.S. officials said they lacked concrete intelligence about the security of the airport. Military officials have stated that the use of fast-moving fighter jets and bombers would have been useless in attacking a small force hiding in a residential neighborhood near the compound and annex.
Some media reports have noted that an AC-130 gunship could have made a difference. Pentagon spokesman George Little noted that such airborne attacks raised the risk of doing much more harm than good.
Q: Were Obama administration officials aware of events as they were unfolding?
A: State Department officials testified on Capitol Hill that the department had been in contact with the consulate during the attack.
Q: Did the military send drones over Benghazi during the attack?
A: There are media reports that an unarmed Predator drone arrived over Benghazi about an hour after the attacks began. Fox News reported that the drone was low on fuel and had to return to base and was replaced by a second Predator drone, also unarmed, from Sigonella.
Critics have said the drones should have been armed to try to hold off the attack. U.S. officials said a drone from Italy would have taken about four hours to reach Benghazi. They said the weapon is also not precise enough to identify and attack targets among a civilian population in a chaotic urban environment.