WASHINGTON — The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has become a major issue in the presidential campaign, focused on the evolving Obama administration explanations.
Prior to the Sept. 11 assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, a 14-minute video surfaced on the Internet as a trailer to a low-budget movie insulting the Prophet Muhammad. On the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and attacked the U.S. compound in Benghazi.
Here is a timeline showing key events and statements about the Benghazi attack by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Republican senators and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The State Department provided the timeline for Sept. 10-11 with local times in Benghazi; the remaining events were gathered from other AP sources.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens arrives in Benghazi and holds meetings on and off the consulate grounds on Sept. 10. He spends the night, and for the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks holds meetings inside the compound only. It is an enclosed area about 300 yards long by 100 yards wide, with a 9-foot outer wall topped by barbed wire and augmented by barriers, steel drop bars and other security upgrades. There are four buildings in the compound. Five diplomatic security officers are present, along with four members of a local militia deployed by Libya's government to provide added security.
Around 8:30 p.m.
Stevens finishes his final meeting of the day and escorts a Turkish diplomat outside the main entrance of the consulate. The situation is calm. There are no protests.
Around 9:40 p.m.
Agents hear loud noises, gunfire and explosions near the front gate. A barracks at the entrance housing the local militiamen is burnt down. Agents viewing cameras see a large group of armed men flowing into the compound. Alarm is sounded. Telephone calls are made to the embassy in Tripoli, officials in Washington, the Libyan authorities and a U.S. quick reaction force located at a second compound a little more than a mile away.
One agent, armed with a sidearm and an M4 submachine gun, takes Stevens and computer specialist Sean Smith to a safe room inside one of the compound's two main residences. It has a heavy metal grill and several locks, medical supplies and water, and windows that can be opened only from the inside. The other agents equip themselves with long guns, body armor, helmets and ammunition at other buildings. Two try to make it to the building with Stevens. They are met by armed men and are forced to retreat.
Attackers breach the compound
Attackers penetrate Stevens' building and try to break the grill locks for the safe room but cannot gain access. They dump jerry cans of diesel fuel in the building, light furniture on fire and set aflame part of the exterior of the building. Two of the remaining four agents are in the compound's other residence. Attackers penetrate that building, but the agents barricade themselves in and the attackers can't reach them. Attackers try to enter the tactical operations center, where the last two agents are located. They smash up the door but cannot enter the building.
Meanwhile, Stevens' building rapidly fills up with thick diesel smoke and burning fumes from the furniture. Inside, visibility is less than 3 feet. Unable to breathe, the Americans go to a bathroom and open a window but still can't get enough air. They decide to leave the building. The agent goes first, flopping out onto a patio enclosed by sandbags. He takes immediate fire, including probably rocket-propelled grenades. Stevens and Smith don't come out of the building. The agent, suffering severely from smoke inhalation, goes in and out of the building several times to look for them. He then climbs a ladder to the roof of the building and collapses. He radios the other agents to alert them to the situation there.
The other four agents are able to reunite and take an armored vehicle to Stevens' building. They reach the collapsed agent and try to set up a perimeter. They take turns going into the building, searching on hands and knees for the missing Americans. Smith is pulled out, dead. Stevens cannot be found.
A six-person, quick-reaction security team arrives from their compound across town. About 60 Libyan militiamen accompany them. They attempt to secure a perimeter around Stevens' building and take turns going inside. Taking fire, Libyan forces determine they can't hold the perimeter. A decision is made to evacuate the compound and return with everyone to the reaction force's compound.
Agents pile into an armored vehicle with Smith's body and leave through the main gate. They face immediate fire. Crowds and groups of men block two different routes to the security compound. Heavy traffic means they are traveling only about 15 mph and trying not to attract attention. On a narrow street they reach a group of men who signal for them to enter a compound. They sense an attack and speed away, taking heavy fire from AK-47 machine guns at a distance of only 2 feet and hand grenades thrown against and under the car. Two tires are blown out.
They speed past another crowd of men and onto a main street and across a grassy median into opposing traffic. The agents drive against traffic, eventually reaching their compound. Security gets into firing positions around the compound and on the roof. They take more gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades intermittently for several hours.
In the night, a team of reinforcements from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli arrives on a chartered aircraft at the Benghazi airport and reaches the security compound.
Around 4 a.m.
The compound's building is hit by mortar fire. The roof is hit and two security personnel are killed. One agent involved in the attack from the beginning is severely wounded. The men decide to evacuate the city entirely. They spend the next hours securing the annex and moving a large convoy of vehicles to the airport. They evacuate on two flights.
The president, in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, uses the word "terror." He says: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."
Romney accuses the administration of showing weakness in the face of the attack, prompting the president to say his rival "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
The CIA station chief in Libya reports to Washington within 24 hours of the attack that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about the anti-Islam video.
Sept. 16. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice goes on television to say the attack was the work of individual clusters of extremists but began as a spontaneous protest. She says evidence gathered to that point showed no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike.
Sept. 18. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the White House doesn't have any indication the Benghazi attack was premeditated, but adds it's still under investigation and the assessment could change. The president on the "Late Show" with David Letterman describes the anti-Muslim film and then says: "Extremists and terrorists used this (as) an excuse to attack (a) variety of our embassies, including the one — the consulate in Libya."
Sept. 20. The president says that extremists used the anti-Islam video as an excuse to assault U.S. interests overseas, including the attack in Benghazi. Secretary of State Clinton says she's appointing an independent accountability review board to review the circumstances of the attack. Retired diplomat Thomas Pickering will lead the panel.
Sept. 24. Romney leads a chorus of Republican criticism of the administration's foreign policy, accusing the president of minimizing the killings in Libya as a mere "bump in the road" rather than part of a chain of events that threatens American interests. Carney calls the accusations "desperate and offensive."
Sept. 25. The president, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, says that attacks on U.S. citizens in Libya "were attacks on America" and calls on world leaders to join in confronting the root causes of the rage across the Muslim world. Romney calls the attack an act of terrorism and says the United States must use foreign aid to bring about lasting change in such places.
Sept. 26. Carney says that Obama considers the deadly assault a terrorist attack.
Sept. 27. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says there can be no doubt that terrorists had planned and carried out the attack, but Republicans lash out at the president and senior administration officials over their evolving description.
Sept. 28. Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said, "As the intelligence community collects and analyzes more information related to the attack, our understanding of the event continues to evolve. In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress...."
"Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving. As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."
Oct. 4. A team of FBI agents arrives in Benghazi to investigate the assault and leaves after about 12 hours on the ground.
Oct. 5. UN Ambassador Rice denies she tried to mislead Congress, telling three Republican senators in a letter that her comments on Sept. 16 were based on the best information available at the time from intelligence officials.
Oct. 10. A top State Department official, Charlene Lamb, acknowledges at a House hearing that she had declined to approve more U.S. security as violence in Benghazi spiked. She said the department wanted to train Libyans to protect the consulate. She told lawmakers, "I made the best decisions I could with the information I had."
Oct. 11. Vice President Joe Biden says in his debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan: "We weren't told they wanted more security there." Romney says the attack is an issue in the presidential campaign, in part because Americans wonder why it took the Obama administration so long to acknowledge it was a terrorist act.
Oct. 12. The White House defends Biden's "we weren't told" debate statement; Carney says Biden was referring to the White House, the president and himself.
Romney says, "The vice president directly contradicted sworn testimony of State Department officials. He's doubling down on denial." Romney also says: "President Obama, this is an issue because Americans wonder why it was it took so long for you and your administration to admit that this was a terrorist attack,"
Under Secretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy comments on the 16-member site security team of U.S. troops that left Libya in the weeks prior to the attack, despite efforts by its leader to stay longer. Kennedy said, "It provided security to Tripoli, not Benghazi. On a small number of occasions, a couple of SST members would travel to Benghazi for very specific reasons, but they were not part of the long-term security presence in Benghazi."
Oct. 14. Republicans keep up their attack. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says presidential aides deliberately covered up the details of the attack so that voters wouldn't question Obama's handling of the war on terror.
Oct. 15. Secretary of State Clinton takes responsibility for the attack, saying security at all diplomatic missions is her job, not that of the White House. She says: "I take responsibility. I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000 people all over the world (at ) 275 posts."
Oct. 16. Libya becomes a major issue in the second presidential debate. It's the first time Obama uses the exact phrase "terrorist attack." The president says that the day after the attack, "I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime." Romney countered, "I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
Obama takes responsibility for the security in Benghazi.
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Oct. 17. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says, "But first of all, responsibility for American security doesn't lie with the secretary of state. It lies with the president of the United States. It's either willful deception or a degree of incompetence and failure to understand fundamental facts on the ground."
Oct. 18. The president says on "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal.... We're going to fix it."
Oct. 19. The AP reveals that the CIA's Libya station chief sent a report within 24 hours of the attack that there was evidence that militants were behind the assault, rather than a mob upset about the anti-Islamic video.