The Magazine

Confusion or Coverup?

What we knew about the Benghazi attack and when we knew it.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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September 14, Andrews Air Force Base (2:46 p.m. EDT) – President Obama and Secretary Clinton attend the transfer of remains ceremony for Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans killed in Benghazi. “This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country,” Clinton says. “We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.” Clinton quotes from a letter written by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who condemned the attack as “an act of ugly terror.” 

September 14, Washington – “It was a terrorist attack, organized and carried out by terrorists,” notably 15 members of “al Qaeda or radical Islamists,” says Senator John McCain after a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting. “This was a calculated act of terror on the part of a small group of jihadists, not a mob that somehow attacked and sacked our embassy,” McCain says. “People don’t go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons.”

September 16 (Sunday morning) – U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice goes on five Sunday talk shows to explain what happened in Benghazi. Her narrative is wrong in almost every detail. On CBS News’s Face the Nation, for example, Rice says the attack was “sparked by this hateful video.” She says that “spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi .  .  . extremist elements, individuals, joined in that—in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.” Rice adds, “We do not .  .  . have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.” Rice makes similar comments on the other four shows. 

Libyan president Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf also appears on Face the Nation and directly contradicts Rice’s claims, saying that the attack was “planned—definitely” and that some of those arrested in connection with the attack are associated with al Qaeda.

September 17, Washington (1:57 p.m. EDT) – During a press briefing, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is asked about Ambassador Rice’s comments the day before. “I’d simply say that I don’t have any information beyond what Ambassador Rice shared with you and that her assessment does reflect our initial assessment as a government,” Nuland says. Asked if the attack in Benghazi was an act of terror, Nuland responds, “I’m not going to put labels on this until we have a complete investigation” and “I don’t think we know enough.”

September 18 (evening) – President Obama appears on The Late Show with David Letterman. “The ambassador to Libya killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi, is this an act of war, are we at war now? What happens here?” Letterman asks. President Obama responds: “No. Here’s what happened. You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who is extremely offensive [sic] video directed at Muhammad and Islam. .  .  . So this caused great offense in much of the Muslim world. But what also happened was extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the one, the consulate in Libya.”

September 19, Washington – National Counterterrorism director Matthew Olsen labels the attack in Benghazi a “terrorist attack.”

September 20, Washington – White House press secretary Jay Carney calls the attack in Benghazi terrorism for the first time.

September 20CBS News reports that “there was never an anti-American protest outside of the consulate” in Benghazi. Instead, according to witnesses, the consulate “came under planned attack.” CBS News adds: “That is in direct contradiction to the administration’s account of the incident.”

September 20 – President Obama is asked about the attack in Libya and other embassy assaults during an appearance on Univision. “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by the extremists to see if they could directly harm U.S. interests,” President Obama says.

September 21 – “What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans,” Secretary Clinton says.

September 24 – President Obama appears on The View. When asked if it was a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Obama responds: “There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. What’s clear is that, around the world, there are still a lot of threats out there.” 

September 25, New York – Before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama gives an impassioned defense of free speech, while denouncing The Innocence of Muslims. He attributes the events of “the last two weeks” to “a crude and disgusting video that sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” The president continues: “Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.” The president mentions terrorism only in passing: “Al Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more.” The president does not mention al Qaeda or affiliated groups or terrorism in the context of the attack in Benghazi.

September 26, New York – At the U.N., Secretary Clinton publicly connects Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to the attack in Benghazi, saying that AQIM members “are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.” The New York Times reports that she is “the highest-ranking Obama administration official to publicly make the connection.” 

September 27 – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the attack in Benghazi was an act of terror. 

September 28 – The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) releases a statement taking responsibility for attributing the attack in Benghazi to a spontaneous protest. The ODNI says that initially “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo.” The ODNI “provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”

October 9, Washington – Two senior State Department officials brief the press on the attack in Benghazi, saying the assault was “unprecedented” and there was no protest beforehand. When asked what led the Obama administration to conclude that a protest precipitated the violence, one official responded: “That is a question that you would have to ask others. That was not our conclusion. I’m not saying that we had a conclusion, but we outlined what happened.” This directly contradicts earlier statements made by senior State Department officials. 

October 10, Washington – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb testifies before the House Oversight Committee, “Dozens of attackers .  .  . launched a full-scale assault” on the Benghazi consulate “that was unprecedented in its size and intensity.” Lamb makes no mention of a protest.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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