Separating fact from fiction in U.S. Consulate attack

  • Updated: November 2, 2012 - 9:33 PM
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A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012. An American staff member of the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has died following fierce clashes at the compound, Libyan security sources said on Wednesday. Armed gunmen attacked the compound on Tuesday evening, clashing with Libyan security forces before the latter withdrew as they came under heavy fire. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

Photo: © Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters, Dml - Reuters

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Questions continue to swirl around the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya in September that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. It has been fodder for the presidential campaign and a source of dispute on Capitol Hill. The questions essentially boil down to what did the Obama administration know about the attack as it was happening, and how quickly? The problem has been separating fact from spin during a period of high-stakes 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 Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, had expressed concerns about the level of security. E-mails recently reported on by Foreign Policy magazine indicate that Stevens had requested additional security. 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. Given the fledgling nature of Libya's security services, it was common for even the government to rely on private militias.

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." Also, a CIA timeline released 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 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 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 airport's security. 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.

Q: Were Obama administration officials aware of events as they were unfolding?

A State Department officials testified that the department had been in contact with the consulate during the attack.

Q Did the military send drones?

A There are media reports that an unarmed 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 unarmed drone. Critics have said the drones should have been armed. U.S. officials said the weapon is also not precise enough to attack targets among a civilian population.

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