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Fact-checking the Benghazi attacks

Here's a breakdown of what happened from the attack on Sept. 12, 2011 to the current political controversy involving Hillary Clinton. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies Thursday before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. As a reader service, we present in chronological order all 20 fact-checks we have done on the 2012 tragedy in Libya, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed on and just after the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

We have completed nine fact-checks of Republican statements, six fact-checks of Democratic claims and five neutral or analytic examinations of the issue. (We are not including the many fact-checks of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statements about her private e-mail account, which is a subset of the panel’s probe. For a collection of those fact checks, click this link.)

Partisans on both sides will find something they like — or dislike. The Fact Checker drew immediate attention to the factual lapses in Susan Rice’s now-controversial appearance on the Sunday talk shows immediately after the attacks. We also compiled an extensive timeline of administration statements that demonstrated how long the White House, in the midst of a campaign season, tried to avoid calling the attacks terrorism. We also pounced on many unsubstantiated claims by Republicans, including the statements that Hillary Clinton had thwarted the movement of Defense Department assets or had denied security for the Benghazi facility.

Reviewing these columns, the pattern is fairly clear: rhetorical overreach by Republicans; give-no-quarter spin from Democrats. As always, The Fact Checker welcomes suggestions from readers for additional Benghazi claims to fact-check. (We have updated this with additional fact checks published after Oct., 2015)

Click on the headline to read the full column.

The Romney campaign’s repeated errors on the Cairo embassy statement

Sept. 13, 2012: Few may remember, but the initial controversy about Benghazi was a tweet issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The Mitt Romney campaign seized on the tweet as an apparent apology to extremists before all the facts were known about what had happened in Libya. In its rush to jump on the fast-moving story, the Romney campaign badly conflated the two things — and then made itself the focus of attention, instead of the administration’s policies or its handling of the crisis. The Romney campaign earned Three Pinocchios.

Was the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya planned?

Sept. 17, 2012: Then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice earned an instant Two Pinocchios for her statements on the Sunday news shows, arguing that “extremist elements” had joined in what she called a demonstration that began “spontaneously” in response to another demonstration in Cairo “sparked by this hateful video.” As we put it: “The administration obviously wants to play down the possibility of a planned attack because that would raise broader questions about whether U.S. intelligence and embassy security in Libya were adequate. But Rice’s comments strain credulity, especially after Libya’s president declared without a doubt that the attack was planned.” Administration officials sharply disputed these conclusions, especially the awarding of any Pinocchios. But the gap between Rice’s statements and other information publicly available at the time made a Pinocchio rating appropriate. Over time, Rice’s remarks that Sunday, five days after the attack, would come back to haunt the administration.

From video to terrorist attack: A definitive timeline of administration statements on the Libya attack

Sept. 27, 2012:  The Fact Checker compiled the first detailed timeline showing how administration statements had evolved on the Benghazi incident. For political reasons, it was in the White House’s interest to not portray the attacks as a terrorist incident, especially one that took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Instead, the administration kept the focus on what was ultimately proved to be a political red herring — anger in the Arab world over an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube. 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.

The Obama-Romney clash over Libya

Oct. 17, 2012: The Benghazi tragedy led to one of the most memorable moments of the Obama-Romney debates. Here, we untangled their dispute over whether Obama had quickly called it a “terrorist attack.” Obama was correct that, in the day or two after the attacks, he did use phrasing such as “act of terror,” though it was vaguer than he implied in the debate. Moreover, he then dropped the phrase and for at least a week the administration pushed a narrative that characterized the attacks as a spontaneous reaction to the video, rather than terrorism. Romney, meanwhile, was correct that it took at least two weeks for Obama to forthrightly call it a terrorist attack.

McCain’s claims about Susan Rice’s comments on the Libya attack

Nov. 14, 2012: Susan Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows began to torpedo her chances of becoming secretary of state. Here, we looked at how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) mischaracterized Rice’s words and then assumed she should have had all the information that by November was known about the Benghazi attacks. We contrasted how McCain treated Susan Rice compared to Condoleezza Rice, whom he had defended against charges of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He earned Two Pinocchios.

Hillary Clinton and the Aug. 16 cable on Benghazi security

April 10, 2013: We dug deep into questions concerning Clinton’s knowledge of a cable relaying the concerns of the regional security officer that the diplomatic post could not be adequately defended. No Pinocchios were awarded.

Issa’s absurd claim that Clinton’s ‘signature’ means she personally approved it

April 26, 2013: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), at the time chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, claimed that Clinton “outright denied security in her signature in a cable, April 2012.” Issa presented this as a “gotcha” moment, suggesting Clinton had perjured herself before Congress, but his claim relied on an absurd understanding of the word “signature.” Workers in the communications center put the secretary of state’s signature on every cable from Washington, even if the secretary happens to be on the other side of the world at the time. There is no evidence Clinton was aware of this request for additional security — or this cable. Issa earned Four Pinocchios.

The Benghazi hearings: What’s new and what’s not

May 9, 2013: We helped readers through some of the fog of charges and countercharges that emerged at the House hearings on the Benghazi incident, such as reports of a demonstration outside the diplomatic compound and what role, if any, the anti-Islam video played. No Pinocchios were awarded.

An alternative explanation for the Benghazi talking points: Bureaucratic knife fight

May 10, 2013: This analysis first suggested that the core reason for the evolution of the talking points was a bureaucratic battle between the CIA and the State Department. We informed readers that although the ambassador was killed, the Benghazi “consulate” was not a consulate at all but essentially a secret CIA operation which included an effort to round up shoulder-launched missiles. U.S. officials had been constrained in discussing that fact, as the administration could not publicly admit that most of the Americans in Benghazi were involved in a secret CIA effort that had not even been formally disclosed to the Libyan government. State Department officials objected to the talking points, initially drafted by the CIA, as an effort by the spy agency to pin the blame for the tragedy on the State Department. (Here’s a good explainer on the e-mails in question.)

Obama’s claim he called Benghazi an ‘act of terrorism’

May 14, 2013: The president tried to rewrite history by claiming “the day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.” But he had actually said “act of terror” in vague terms, usually wrapped in a patriotic fervor: “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.” In fact, immediately after the Rose Garden statement the day after the attacks, Obama sat down with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” and acknowledged that he had purposely avoided the using the word “terrorism.” (CBS did not release this clip until after the election.) There were other occasions when the president ducked questions about whether this was an act of terrorism. The president earned Four Pinocchios for his effort at revising history.

Barbara Boxer’s claim that GOP budgets hampered Benghazi security

May 16, 2013: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) suggested there was not enough security in Benghazi because Republicans had cut the budget for embassy security funding. But this claim was not credible and highly partisan. Democrats had also short-changed the State Department budget (compared to presidential requests), but funding for embassy security generally had increased significantly in recent years. Moreover, over the course of many hearings into the matter, State Department officials had told Congress that a lack of funds was not an issue. Instead, security was hampered because of bureaucratic issues and management failures. In other words, given the internal failures, no amount of money for the State Department likely would have made a difference in this tragedy. Boxer earned Three Pinocchios.

The White House claim of ‘doctored e-mails … to smear the president’

May 21, 2013: White House communications chief Dan Pfeiffer claimed that Republicans “doctored” e-mails that were given to a reporter in an effort to “smear the president.” After a lengthy examination, The Fact Checker concluded that despite Pfeiffer’s claim of political skullduggery, there was little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists. Pfeiffer earned Three Pinocchios.

Has anyone been ‘fired’ because of the Benghazi attacks?

May 22, 2013: The Fact Checker looked into a claim by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that “no one had been fired” over the Benghazi affair. In December 2012, the State Department had announced that four top State Department officials were being dismissed from their posts. At the time of Paul’s remarks, the officials still were on administrative leave, a netherworld of professional limbo, as their cases were reviewed. We initially rated this as “verdict pending,” but then Paul was proved right when State announced in August (when most of Washington is away) that  the officials had been returned to active duty and would face no further disciplinary action. Paul thus ended up earning a coveted Geppetto Checkmark.

Issa’s ‘suspicions’ that Hillary Clinton told Panetta to ‘stand down’ on Benghazi

Feb. 21, 2014: During a fundraising dinner for Republicans in New Hampshire, Issa said he had “suspicions” that Clinton told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to “stand down.” He also asked why “there was not one order given to turn on one Department of Defense asset.” But both a report by Republicans on the Armed Services Committee and a bipartisan Senate Intelligence report had found that no allegations of a “stand down” order could be substantiated. Moreover, DOD assets were certainly moved per Panetta’s orders. One could argue that the response was slow, bungled or poorly handled. But we determined that Issa crossed a line when he claimed there was no response — or a deliberate effort to hinder it. Issa earned Four Pinocchios.

Rand Paul’s claim there was ‘no plane’ for Special Ops forces in Benghazi

May 28, 2014: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asserted that the White House “couldn’t find a plane” for Special Operations forces in Libya because it was too busy trying to spin a false narrative. But numerous investigations had documented there was not a shortage of aircraft for Special Ops forces. So Paul earned Four Pinocchios.

Bill Clinton’s strained comparison of diplomatic deaths in different administrations

July 1, 2014: The former president asserted that there was “zero” outrage when there were 10 different instances of American diplomatic personnel being killed during George W. Bush’s term. But at least one of those cases did prompt a congressional investigation and also resulted in a Government Accountability Office report that said the State Department had inadequate safeguards to protect officials when they were outside the embassy perimeter. Moreover, in making his claim, Clinton ignored the similar one-off attacks that have killed diplomatic personnel during Obama’s presidency, making it an unbalanced comparison. He earned Two Pinocchios.

The false claim that Clinton relied on Sid Blumenthal ‘for most of her intelligence’ on Libya

Oct. 20. 2015: Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) asserted that Clinton relied on her friend and outside adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, for “most of her intelligence” on security at Benghazi. That claim was based on the profusion of e-mails that Blumenthal sent to her private email account, but as secretary of state, she had many avenues to receive intelligence at the State Department. Pompeo earned Four Pinocchios.

Is Hillary Clinton a ‘liar’ on Benghazi?

Oct. 30, 2015: During one of the GOP debates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida uttered strong words, accusing Clinton of being “exposed as a liar” on Benghazi. We reviewed Clinton’s public statements and could find little support for Rubio’s claim that Clinton told the American people that the attacks were because of a video. She certainly spoke about the video, but always in the context of the protests that were occurring across the Middle East. Rubio is certainly within his rights to point out Clinton’s contradictory statements but he does not have enough evidence to label Clinton a liar. He earned Two Pinocchios.

What Benghazi family members say Hillary Clinton said about the video

Jan. 4, 2016: The Fact Checker took a deep dive into the question of what exactly Clinton had told families of the victims of the Benghazi attacks.  We reviewed as many transcripts of interviews as we could find and tracked down as many family members as possible. Clinton says that in speaking with the families, she did not blame the Benghazi attacks on the video. Most participants we interviewed (four out of six) back up her version, saying they do not recall her mentioning a video. We did not offer a rating. Readers will have to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence we assembled.

600 ‘requests’ from Benghazi for better security: What this statistic really means

Jan. 26, 2016: We explored a figure that has been widely cited since the House Select Committee on Benghazi held a hearing in October featuring Clinton — that there were “600 requests” for security upgrades from U.S. officials based in Benghazi, Libya. It turned out that few in the media or the political world have understood what this figure is supposed to mean, and in fact have almost always described it incorrectly. The committee was counting “requests and concerns.” At least some of the requests were actually fulfilled — and the counting of “concerns” may be subject to dispute. A filure to note that distinction is worthy of Two Pinocchios.

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