“We are still doing an investigation.”
— President Obama, Sept. 25, 2012
In any kind of confused overseas event, initial reports are often wrong. But the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including the ambassador, is a case study of how an administration can carefully keep the focus as long as possible on one storyline — and then turn on a dime when it is no longer tenable.
For political reasons, it certainly was in the White House’s interests to not portray the attack as a terrorist incident, especially one that took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead the administration kept the focus on what was ultimately a red herring — anger in the Arab world over anti-Muslim video posted on You Tube. With key phrases and message discipline, the administration was able to conflate an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt — which apparently was prompted by the video — with the deadly assault in Benghazi.
Officials were also able to dismiss pointed questions by referring to an ongoing investigation.
Ultimately, when the head of the National Counterterrorism Center was asked pointblank on Capitol Hill whether it was a an act of terror — and he agreed — the administration talking points began to shift. (Tough news reporting — as well as statements by Libya’s president — also played a role.) Yet President Obama himself resisted using the “t” word, even as late as Tuesday, while keeping the focus on the video in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
On Wednesday, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged also that Obama himself believes the attack was terrorism — and so more than two weeks after the attack the Rubicon finally was crossed.
As a reader service, we have compiled a comprehensive timeline of administration statements, showing the evolution in talking points, with key phrases highlighted in bold. Many readers sent suggestions for this timeline, for which we are deeply grateful.
We will leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions on whether this is merely the result of the fog of war and diplomacy — or a deliberate effort to steer the storyline away from more politically damaging questions. After all, in a competitive election, two weeks is a lifetime.
Initially, ‘an attack’ — and focus on a video
“Yesterday, our U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked. Heavily armed militants assaulted the compound and set fire to our buildings. American and Libyan security personnel battled the attackers together. Four Americans were killed. They included Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information management officer, and our Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. We are still making next of kin notifications for the other two individuals.”
— Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, State Department Treaty room, Sept. 12
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. We're working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats. I've also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.
“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts…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.”
— President Obama, Rose Garden statement, Sept. 12
(Note: we added this statement to the timeline after Josh Gerstein of Politico asserted that the phrasing “acts of terror” showed Obama acknowledged “terrorism” was behind the attack. From our many years of covering diplomacy we would say there is a world of difference, but readers can draw their own conclusions.)
“Frankly, we are not in a position to speak any further to the perpetrators of this attack. It was clearly a complex attack. We’re going to have to do a full investigation.”
— Unnamed senior administration official, briefing reporters in a conference call, Sept. 12
“I think it’s important to note with regards to that protest that there are protests taking place in different countries across the world that are responding to the movie that has circulated on the Internet. As Secretary Clinton said today, the United States government had nothing to do with this movie. We reject its message and its contents. We find it disgusting and reprehensible. America has a history of religious tolerance and respect for religious beliefs that goes back to our nation’s founding. We are stronger because we are the home to people of all religions, including millions of Muslims, and we reject the denigration of religion. We also believe that there is no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence.”
— White House spokesman Jay Carney, news briefing, Sept. 13
“This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over n awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
— Clinton, transfer of remains ceremony, Sept. 14
“I have seen that report, and the story is absolutely wrong. We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent. That report is false.”
— Carney, news briefing, Sept. 14
“Based on the best information we have to date ... it began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.... We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”
— Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sept. 16
“We had a substantial security presence with our personnel and the consulate in Benghazi. Tragically, two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security. That was their function. And indeed, there were many other colleagues who were doing the same with them.”
— Rice, on ABC’s “This Week,” Sept. 16
(Note: the U.S. post was not a consulate and its precise role is still a mystery.)
“The way these perpetrators acted and moved, and their choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, this leaves us with no doubt that this was preplanned, predetermined.”
— Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, president of Libya’s General National Congress, Sept. 16
QUESTION: “Simply on the basis of what Ambassador Rice has publicly disclosed, does the United States Government regard what happened in Benghazi as an act of terror?”
SPOKESWOMAN VICTORIA NULAND: “Again, I’m not going to put labels on this until we have a complete investigation, okay?”
QUESTION: “You don’t — so you don’t regard it as an act of terrorism?”
NULAND: “I don’t think we know enough. I don’t think we know enough. And we’re going to continue to assess. She gave our preliminary assessment. We’re going to have a full investigation now, and then we’ll be in a better position to put labels on things, okay?”
— exchange at State Department briefing, Sept. 17
“Well, you’re conveniently conflating two things, which is the anniversary of 9/11 and the incidents that took place, which are under investigation and the cause and motivation behind them will be decided by that investigation.”
— Carney, news briefing, Sept. 17
Suddenly, a shift to a ‘terrorist attack’
“I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy….The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy. The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours at our embassy — our diplomatic post in Benghazi. It evolved and escalated over several hours.
“It appears that individuals who were certainly well-armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded that evening and into the — into the morning hours of September 12th. We do know that a number of militants in the area, as I mentioned, are well-armed and maintain those arms. What we don't have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack.
“We are focused on who was responsible for this attack. At this point, what I would say is that a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area, as well. We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda's affiliates; in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
— Mathew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testimony before Congress, Sept. 19, after being asked a direct question.
CNN reports on Sept. 19 that Ambassador Christopher Stevens had been worried by the security threats in Benghazi. CNN later acknowledged the information came from Steven’s journal.
“It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials. So, again, that's self- evident.
“He also made clear that at this point, based on the information he has — and he is briefing the Hill on the most up-to-date intelligence — we have no information at this point that suggests that this was a significantly preplanned attack, but this was the result of opportunism, taking advantage of and exploiting what was happening as a result of reaction to the video that was found to be offensive.”
— Carney, news briefing, Sept. 20
CBS News reports there never was anti-American protest.
“Witnesses tell CBS News that there was never an anti-American protest outside of the consulate. Instead they say it came under planned attack. That is in direct contradiction to the administration’s account.”
— Margaret Brennan CBS News correspondent, CBS News report aired Sept. 20
But Obama resists saying the ‘t’ word…
OBAMA: “What we’ve seen over the last week, week and a half, is something that actually we've seen in the past, where there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad. And this is obviously something that then is used as an excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts directed at Westerners or Americans.
“And my number-one priority is always to keep our diplomats safe and to keep our embassies safe. And so when the initial events happened in Cairo and all across the region, we worked with Secretary Clinton to redouble our security and to send a message to the leaders of these countries, essentially saying, although we had nothing to do with the video, we find it offensive, it's not representative of America's views, how we treat each other with respect when it comes to their religious beliefs, but we will not tolerate violence.”
QUESTION: “We have reports that the White House said today that the attacks in Libya were a terrorist attack. Do you have information indicating that it was Iran, or al-Qaeda was behind organizing the protests?”
OBAMA: “Well, we're still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.”
— President Obama, Univision Town Hall, Sept. 20
“What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.”
— Clinton, statement at a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Sept. 21, 2012
“As we all know, the United States lost a great ambassador and the Libyan people lost a true friend when Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the terrorist assault on our consulate in Benghazi.”
— Clinton, meeting with Libyan President Magariaf , Sept. 24
QUESTION: “I heard Hillary Clinton say it was an act of terrorism. Is it? What do you say?”
OBAMA: “We are still doing an investigation. There is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. Now, we don’t have all the information yet so we are still gathering.”
— Obama, on ABC’s “The View,” Sept. 25
“That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.”
— Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 25
“It was a preplanned act of terrorism directed against American citizens.”
— Magariaf, on NBC’s “Today” show, Sept. 26
“For some time, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries. Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions. And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”
— Clinton, at the United Nations, Sept. 26
QUESTION: “Is there any reason why the President did not — he was asked point-blank in The View interview, is this a terrorist attack, yes or no? Is there any reason why he didn’t say yes?”
CARNEY: “He answered the question that he was asked, and there's no reason that he chose the words he did beyond trying to provide a full explanation of his views and his assessment that we need to await further information that the investigation will uncover. But it is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the President’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.”
— Carney, news briefing, Sept. 26
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