The Ghosts of Benghazi

The final report on the attack on the U.S. consulate makes one thing clear: Republican charges of a cover-up are pure fiction.

A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012
A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012

Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages.

During the drive to one of Barack Obama’s final campaign stops, navigating the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, I found a dozen or so protesters standing where the media might see them. They held up handmade posters, demanding more questions and answers about the Sept. 11 attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi. One sign simply named the four Americans killed that day, in letters too big to miss. The others assigned blame:

Obama Said “Stand Down”

Ask About Benghazi

Tell the Truth Obama

Media at the time—conservative media, especially—were reporting every possible turn, twist, and revelation about the attacks. The “stand down” theory originated in an October 26 Fox News EXCLUSIVE (capital letters in the original), which reported that the CIA “chain of command” had “told the CIA operators twice to ‘stand down’ rather than help” besieged Americans. A complementary theory, advanced by the father of the murdered Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, suggested that the White House had a “live feed” of the attack and sat shiva, doing nothing. Another theory, universally shared: The White House, led by people like UN Ambassador Susan Rice, was engaged in a massive cover-up.

This anger and panic added impetus to a study of the Benghazi killings, conducted by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. The grimmest tales, the fodder for outrage and fulmination, were debunked. In fact, the problems at Benghazi started months before the attack, not in a fit of on-the-spot cowardice.

According to the report, the incident began around 9:42 p.m., after the day’s work was over. (To simplify matters, I’ve converted the military time in the report to standard time.) There were seven Americans at the consulate, which consisted of several buildings, and they were guarded by four members of the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade. “Guarded” is a lose term. A regional security officer saw, via a security camera, that “dozens of individuals” were marching through the compound’s main gate. The guards had fled; a police car, which was supposed to be outside, was gone.

The official account continues:

Just prior to receiving the TDY RSO’s distress call shortly after [9:42] local, the head of Annex security heard multiple explosions coming from the north in the direction of the SMC. The Annex security head immediately began to organize his team’s departure and notified his superiors, who began to contact local security elements to request support. The Annex response team departed its compound in two vehicles at approximately [10:05] local.

The Oct. 26 Fox News report doesn’t read this way. “Former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a small team who was at the CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team came under attack,” reported Fox’s Jennifer Griffin. “When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out. They were told to ‘stand down,’ according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to ‘stand down.’ ”

The “stand down” line resonated. On this year’s presidential campaign trail, Sen. John McCain said he was hearing from “veterans all over the world” about how the commander-in-chief had left men behind. “Four brave Americans lost their lives, and they didn’t have to!” said McCain at an Oct. 30 Ohio rally for Mitt Romney. “Beginning, during, and ending that terrible period in Benghazi, the United States president was AWOL.” This made it sound like Obama, atop the chain of command, allowed yellow-bellied bureaucrats to let men die.

That’s not backed up by the report. At 9:50 p.m., the main American embassy in Tripoli was talking to Stevens, who said the consulate was under attack “before the call was cut off.” The Americans scrambled to send a security team from Tripoli to Benghazi. In the intervening hours, Stevens was killed, pronounced dead at around 2 a.m. “by apparent smoke inhalation.” Three hours later, the security team arrived, and “less than fifteen minutes later, the Annex came under mortar and RPG attack, with five mortar rounds impacting close together in under 90 seconds. Three rounds hit the roof of an Annex building, killing security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.” They weren’t denied help. The help came too late. That doesn’t alter the tragedy, but it alters the context.

Back to the death of Stevens—the murder committed by “smoke inhalation.” The report describes the start of the clash as a rampaging mob of “armed intruders” who “used filled fuel cans that were stored next to new, uninstalled generators at the February 17 living quarters near the C1 entrance to burn that building,” and “lit on fire vehicles that were parked nearby.” Stevens had been requesting more security, but on the ground, that day, things were quiet until the mob arrived.

As Erik Wemple points out, this contradicts the other damaging accusation from the scandal known as “Benghazi-gate.” The Obama administration’s first fumbling attempts to explain the killings put them in the context of “protests” against a viral anti-Muhammad movie. On Sept. 16, UN Ambassador Susan Rice probably talked her way out of a promotion by sticking to talking points on the event and saying a “spontaneous” protest was hijacked by an armed “clusters of extremists.” McCain and other critics scoffed at the gullibility on display. “Most people don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration,” said McCain on CBS News, speaking immediately after Rice.

The truth lay in between the talking points and the snark. The mob that crashed the consulate was attacking diplomats. But they were able to kill our ambassador, and sow confusion, by setting fires. The heavy weapons came later.

So far, three State Department officials have fallen on their swords in response to this report. That was what investigators asked for, basically, blaming the circumstances in Benghazi on “senior State Department officials” who “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability.” They failed to provide security before Sept. 11. On Tuesday, describing the video he’d been able to watch of the attack, Sen. Bob Corker told reporters that the compound was so wanly protected that “you or I could have walked right in.”

That doesn’t suggest a real-time campaign of cowardice. It doesn’t suggest a cover-up, either. It suggests that the neglected budget for embassy security needs a harder look in 2013. When that happens—or when it doesn’t happen—we’ll know what politicians learned from Benghazi.