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Piecing Together the Benghazi Attack as More Protests Erupt

Libya makes "extremist" arrests, but the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee says no signs point to a planned attack.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

September 13, 2012 - 5:01 pm

Libya arrested four men today suspected of “helping instigate” the mob violence at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

“There is suspicion that those people belong to some extremist group here. But, again, this is something we don’t know until the investigation is through. I expect that to happen in the next couple of days at the most,” newly elected Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagour told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this afternoon.

“The evidence itself is based on mostly pictures taken throughout the compound at that time and also some witnesses,” he said.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence met behind closed doors for two hours with CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus today to be briefed on the rapidly unfolding investigation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she’s seen “no evidence or no assessment that indicates it was” a planned attack. “There was a protest and it could well be that quickly, some two dozen people took that as an opportunity to attack. They have attacked the Benghazi consulate before. I believe it was on June 6th. So this is not a new thing,” the senator said on CNN.

“And I believe an investigation is going on in this country concerning the individual who did this very obnoxious 12-minute preview of some very stupid movie and wrong-headed movie. And he may well not be who he has claimed to be either,” Feinstein added. “So we’re going to have to find out a lot about what happened.”

The senator thanked “the currently anonymous Libyan citizen who took Ambassador Stevens to the hospital.”

“He didn’t survive, but to me, that was such a human and real act,” she said.

Feinstein’s words for the Egyptian government were less kind, noting that President Mohamed Morsi didn’t denounce the attack on the Cairo embassy.

“I have helped Egypt in the past. I want to continue. But we need to see which way this government is going to go,” she said. “And I think the statements of the government in the next few days, also, are going to indicate which way this government goes. And that’s important for us here to listen to that.”

The Intelligence Committee was monitoring 11 ongoing demonstrations against the U.S. in various countries, with more expected around Friday prayers.

One of those demonstrations was outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen, where four protesters died in clashes with police today. No embassy personnel were hurt, and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi apologized to President Obama for the mob violence.

Obama called Hadi this afternoon to discuss the assault and express appreciation for the Yemeni government’s cooperation, the White House said. “President Hadi committed to doing everything possible to protect American citizens in Yemen, and said he had deployed additional security forces around the U.S. Embassy,” said the readout from the White House. “President Obama reiterated his rejection of any efforts to denigrate Islam, and emphasized that there is never any justification for the violence we are seeing.”

In today’s press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated that the administration rejects “the denigration of religion” and also believes “that there is no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence.”

“Islam respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it violates that dignity to wage attacks on innocents,” Carney said in a loose paraphrase of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions.”

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, though, that religious leaders need to stand alongside political leaders in speaking out against the attacks.

“They should really condemn the violence and they should make it clear that regardless of one’s feelings, violence should not be used in defense of the Koran or honor,” Annan said. “And I think what has happened in the way — I mean we talk of extremists, we talk of also some groups and they are usually very small groups, they undertake these activities but where is the majority? Where are the leaders? Nobody speaks up.”

And as many details of the attack remain foggy, senior administration officials speaking on background divulged yesterday what they knew of the timeline of how the tragedy unfolded in Benghazi.

At about 10 p.m. Libya time on 9/11 — six hours ahead of Washington — the “interim” U.S. compound in Benghazi began taking fire, and the extremists were within the walls within 15 minutes and firing into the main building, setting it ablaze.

At that hour, there were three people in the main building: Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and a regional security officer. “They became separated from each other due to the heavy, dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building,” the administration official said. “The Regional Security Officer made it outside, and then he and other security personnel returned into the burning building in an attempt to rescue Chris and Sean.”

They found Smith already dead and pulled his body from the building. They were unable to find Stevens before smoke and small-arms fire drove them back. U.S. and Libyan forces weren’t able to regain control of the main building until 11:20 p.m. Remaining personnel in the compound were shepherded into an annex with a separate perimeter, also guarded by Libyan security, that also came under fire, a fight that continued until about 2 a.m. — and was won, the administration said, with the assistance of “one of the local militias who is friendly to the embassy” who came to assist.

In addition to the Americans slain, three were wounded and being cared for in Germany.

“At some point in all of this – and frankly, we do not know when – we believe that Ambassador Stevens got out of the building and was taken to a hospital in Benghazi,” the official said. “We do not have any information what his condition was at that time. His body was later returned to U.S. personnel at the Benghazi airport” where staff were being evacuated to Tripoli. That was around dawn Libya time.

They refused to answer questions about the specifics of the ambassador’s security detail that evening.

An administration official did say that in a review of security at missions around the world in preparation for the 9/11 anniversary, “there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.”

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said today that there are no clearer answers about the timeline in regards to what happened to the ambassador.

“We are constantly also learning lessons, particularly in the wake of a tragedy, as we have in the wake of past tragedies like the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, so that, obviously, we can pledge to the American people and to our own work force, but I’m not in a position to give you any conclusions from any of that at this moment,” she said.

Carney said the situation around the world is being closely monitored as “Friday, tomorrow, has historically been a day when there are protests in the Muslim world.”

“It is very important and — that we get through the next few days, that cooler, saner minds prevail, that we’re able to do the due diligence on this 12-minute trailer,” Feinstein said. “And I think, you know, it’s such a farce. It’s so stupid. And the man that produced it certainly made no contribution to art or literature, truth or justice.”

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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