Six weeks following the assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, many questions remain regarding the nature of the attacks, what the Obama administration knew and when, and the way that knowledge was delivered to the public. Adding to that confusion is the GOP’s desire to politicize the issue in the run-up to the presidential election.
Mitt Romney was widely scorned for criticizing Obama in the assault’s immediate aftermath for allegedly sympathizing with the attackers. But days later, Romney, his allies and other pundits found an opening to again criticize the administration. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice claimed that the attack in Libya was an outgrowth of the protests in Cairo against an anti-Muslim film. But the administration’s story soon changed.
This shift in story — while always likely given the nature of intelligence — launched a new round of condemnation against Obama. Accusations and speculation of administration lies and cover-ups have been the major focus of the narrative since then.
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But the reality is much more nuanced than what the built-up narrative suggests. The following is a timeline of not the attack itself, but the response to it, by the Obama administration, Mitt Romney’s campaign and the right-wing:
September 11, 2012: Protests around the world take place at U.S. embassies, including in Cairo and Tripoli. The anger was reportedly sparked by a video, purported to be the trailer of a full-length movie, called “The Innocence of Muslims,” that portrayed Islam in a highly negative and derogatory light.
September 11: Dozens of armed militants launch an attack on an American diplomatic outpost in the Libyan city Benghazi.
September 11: Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign issues a statement condemning the Obama administration’s response to the global protests:
ROMNEY: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
September 12: Initial reports surface that Ambassador Chris Stevens has been killed, along with other American citizens. The story of how continues to shift throughout day as details emerge.
September 12: In the immediate aftermath of news of Ambassador Stevens’ death, Republicans criticized the Romney campaign’s statement. But the campaign stuck to its attack. When asked about the statement, Romney foreign policy advisor Richard Williamson, replied, “It was accurate.”
September 12: The New York Times reports that “[f]ighters involved in the assault…said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.” The Times continues to stand by its story.
September 12: President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton give remarks on the death of Ambassador Stevens and others. Both pledge justice against the perpetrators of the attacks. In his speech, Obama refers to the attack as an “act of terror”:
OBAMA: 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.
September 13: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says during a press briefing and a later press gaggle that the protests around the world were due to reaction to the video. In the gaggle, Carney made clear he didn’t want to speculate in light of the ongoing investigation. His remarks were later taken to mean that the Benghazi attack was based on video.
September 16: United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice goes on all five major Sunday news shows to explain current administration thinking on the Benghazi attack. During her statements, Rice says that the attacks were in part a response to the anti-Islam video that had spurred protests across the region. But, contrary to the popular narrative, Rice did not give a definitive answer as to what exactly took place in Benghazi, for example, in her appearance on ABC’s This Week:
RICE: [O]ur current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
We’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that’s the best information we have at present.
Watch her appearance:
September 19: National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen calls the assault in Benghazi an “opportunistic attack” in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” he said.
September 19: CNN reports that Ambassador Stevens remained concerned about security in Libya in the months before his death. CNN’s reporting is later revealed to be based on finding Stevens’ personal journal in the Benghazi site’s wreckage.
September 20: CBS reports that Libyan witnesses maintain that there were no protests immediately prior to the attack on the outpost in Benghazi. The statement contradicts Rice’s statements on the Sunday morning shows that the attack was sparked by the Cairo protest against the anti-Muslim video.
September 21: Clinton appoints an independent panel, led by veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, to investigate potential failures in the State Department’s procedures in Benghazi.
September 21: Citizens in Benghazi protest against the militias based in their city, culminating in the expulsion of the Ansar al-Sharia militia — the group suspected of the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens — from their headquarters.
September 24: President Obama speaks before the U.N. General Assembly on the need to protect freedom of speech. Right-wing commentators later criticize the President for focusing on the video rather than terrorism.
September 26: The Daily Beast reports that some U.S. intelligence officials had “strong indications” that the Benghazi attack was perpetrated by al-Qaeda affiliated groups just 24 hours after the assault — providing fuel to the “cover up” narrative.
September 27: Right-wing blogs continue to point to FBI being unable to access Benghazi site, despite CNN being able to, as a sign of administration deception or incompetence.
September 28: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence takes responsibility for the intelligence community’s claim, repeated by Rice, that the Benghazi attack was launched in response to the protests against the anti-Muslim video in Cairo.
September 28: Rep. Peter King (R-NY) calls for Rice’s resignation over her comments on September 16th:
KING: I believe that this was such a failure of foreign policy messag[ing] and leadership, such a misstatement of facts as was known at the time … for her to go on all of those shows and in effect be our spokesman for the world and be misinforming the American people and our allies and countries around the world, to me, somebody has to pay the price for this.
September 30: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), in an appearance on Fox News, refers to the situation as “Benghazi-gate” and maintains that it is a scandal worse than Watergate.
October 3: Chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee Darrel Issa (R-CA) calls the first witnesses in a forthcoming hearing on the administration’s handling of security in Libya.
October 4: An FBI team reaches the Benghazi site, collecting evidence for about twelve hours.
October 8: Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. In his remarks, Romney criticizes the Obama administration’s narrative on the events in Benghazi:
ROMNEY: This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long.
No, as the Administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.
October 9: State Department officials say there was never a view in their department that the Benghazi attack was in response to the video.
October 10: In a phone interview, Romney says to Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “I think there was misleading on the part of the administration” with regards to Benghazi.
October 10: During a hearing that House Democrats warned would be highly partisan prior to its beginning, testimony was given by several current and former State Department officials that security in Benghazi was lacking. Career official Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb took the majority of the blame for the decisions made regarding diplomatic security.
October 10: The officials also testified that they denied requests for greater security in Libya, but those requests “were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away.”
October 12: Prior to the vice presidential debate, Obama campaign Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter remarks that Libya has “only become a political issue” thanks to Romney and Paul Ryan. The Romney campaign and other pundits then attacked Cutter, suggesting she claimed Romney and Ryan made the Libya attacks “an issue,” when in fact she said they made the attacks a “political issue.”
October 13: Ambassador Stevens’ father says that it would be “abhorrent” for his son’s death to become a political issue. His statement comes following a request by the mother of a former Marine killed in Benghazi that Romney no longer tell a story involving her son on the campaign trail.
October 14: Romney campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani explicitly says that Romney should be “exploiting” Libya for political gain.