Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The night of smoke, chaos, gunfire and grenades that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, is well-documented. Eight months later, it is the decisions made back in Washington that remain murky and in perpetual dispute.
Why was a diplomatic outpost left so poorly protected? Should the Pentagon have rushed jets or special forces to the rescue when the assault began? Did President Barack Obama's administration obscure the true nature of the terrorist attack to help him get re-elected?
Congressional Republicans are poking for evidence of incompetence and cover-up in the ashes of the Sept. 11 anniversary attack. Obama dismisses their probes as a politically driven "sideshow."
The release this past week of 100 pages of government emails and notes is the latest fodder, as numerous Benghazi investigations continue.
A look at the issue:
Republicans and Democrats began condemning each other's response to Benghazi within hours of the first shots fired. The issue has flared and dimmed ever since, revived by new testimony, reports or documents like the newly released emails.
Republican lawmakers say they won't stop until they get their questions answered.
Democrats accuse the GOP of flogging the issue for partisan gain.
The focus on Benghazi and other controversies makes it harder for Obama to press his second-term agenda. Emphasizing the State Department's failings during her tenure could be especially damaging to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the early favorite among Democrats who might seek the presidency in 2016.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible Republican presidential candidate, already is arguing that the attack "precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office."
The controversy also helps Republicans raise money and fire up their conservative base heading into next year's congressional elections.
SEPT. 11, 2012
The night of the attack, as described by the State Department's review board and other accounts:
Seven Americans are at State's temporary residential compound in Benghazi that night: U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, visiting from the embassy in Tripoli; computer specialist Sean Smith and five diplomatic security officers. They are a minority among U.S. personnel in Benghazi; most work for the CIA, which operates a secret "annex" about a mile away.
Egyptian demonstrators had scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo hours earlier to protest an American amateur filmmaker's video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. But there were no demonstrations that day in Benghazi. The attack begins suddenly around 9:40 p.m. — gunfire, explosions, sounds of chanting and then dozens of armed men swarming through the compound's main entrance. Libyans hired to guard the compound flee.
A security officer hustles Stevens and Smith into a fortified "safe room." It fills with blinding smoke when the attackers set the building on fire with diesel fuel, and the two men become separated from the security officer.
A CIA team from the annex arrives about 25 minutes into the attack and helps search for the two diplomats inside the smoke-filled room, while gunfire continues outside. Only Smith's body is found. Eventually the U.S. personnel escape in armored vehicles, plowing through gunfire and grenade blasts to the CIA annex across town. Rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire target the annex intermittently for an hour after midnight.
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