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Benghazi questions fuel fierce partisan debate

Associated Press Published: November 2, 2012
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Q: Was the immediate response to the attack inadequate? Did officials in Washington turn down urgent appeals for assistance from the intelligence community, and the military and did authorities on the ground tell would-be responders to "stand down" as the assault was happening?

A: Senior intelligence officials have denied reports that officials in Washington rejected requests for CIA agents at the nearby annex to respond to the consulate attack. These officials insist that a half-dozen security forces from the CIA annex responded within 25 minutes of the first call for help from the consulate. Armed with the small arms they normally carry — and with no response from Libyan officials who were asked to provide heavy weaponry — they helped rescue some State Department personnel and repel the militants. An unarmed Defense Department drone aircraft was quickly moved overhead to provide surveillance video for the CIA on the ground during the night. Two military members were with the CIA team that flew from Tripoli to Benghazi during the night to provide assistance. Panetta, meanwhile, ordered two teams of special operations forces from Fort Bragg, N.C., and central Europe to head to the area, and sent a Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to Libya. The Marine team got to Tripoli, but by then the Americans had already been flown out of Libya. The commando teams got to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, but arrived after the fight was over. Two of the CIA security officers, Woods and Doherty, died in a mortar attack just before dawn when insurgents assaulted the CIA annex, where the Americans had taken refuge.

Q: Did the administration intentionally downplay the attack by initially describing it as a response to the anti-Islam movie and not specifically an "act of terrorism"? Is the administration trying to cover up al-Qaida links to the attack to benefit Obama politically in his re-election campaign?

A: It's unclear what motivations, if any, were behind the administration's messaging, but Obama heatedly denied any political motivation in one of his debates with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

In public statements, administration officials did link the Benghazi attack to the anti-Islam film by saying it appeared to have sprung from the same anger that sparked the violent protests elsewhere. Those statements, though, such as widely criticized comments by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, were couched as preliminary findings based on the best available evidence at the time.

Intelligence officials say their assessment — from a protest gone bad to an orchestrated attack — evolved as more information became available. They say that while early reports indicated extremists were involved in the assault, initial public statements were deliberately cautious and limited since they involved classified intelligence. While it has become clear that information was coming in in real time during the attack, there are still questions about how quickly conflicting reports were sorted out and how high up the chain of command the information went.

State Department officials have said they never concluded the attack began as a spontaneous demonstration against the movie and said further that there was no protest outside the consulate before the assault occurred. However, they also stress that they made no immediate conclusions about the origins or impetus for the attack. Eyewitnesses have told various news organizations, including The New York Times, that some of the attackers said they were angered by the film, but there is no evidence yet to suggest that that was their motivation to storm the compound.

Q: Who did it?

A: That is still unclear. The Tunisian government is holding as a suspect a Tunisian man named Ali Harzi, who was arrested in Turkey and may have some ties to the attack. Emails sent from the State Department to the White House and other government agencies on the evening of the attack reported that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility, leading to charges that the administration knew it was a terror attack and not protesters. However, the group subsequently denied responsibility for the attack and there are questions about whether the initial claim was credible. U.S. intelligence also intercepted phone calls in which al-Sharia members were bragging about pulling off the attack to members of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, an offshoot of al-Qaida.

Q: Who is investigating the incident?

A: In addition to an FBI investigation, which is required when an American official is killed in the line of duty overseas, there are at least four congressional investigations and several State Department probes now under way. The FBI will try to determine who actually committed the attack and killed the four Americans with an eye toward potential prosecution or other action. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is looking into possible administration negligence related to security at the consulate and the response to attack. The House and Senate Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees are also seeking answers to the questions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has appointed an independent accountability review board to examine any State Department failures and make recommendations on diplomatic security. The State Department's inspector general has informed Congress that his office will be making its own inquiries.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.