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Benghazi questions fuel fierce partisan debate

Friday - 11/2/2012, 4:52pm  ET

By MATTHEW LEE
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The deadly military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has raised numerous foreign policy and national security questions and fueled a fierce, partisan election debate over the Obama administration's handling of the attack.

The strike that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is either proof of President Barack Obama's leadership failures or a tragic event that occurred despite the administration's best efforts to protect the compound and respond in the aftermath of the attack, according to highly charged arguments on both sides.

Administration officials have warned against drawing conclusions from individual documents that have leaked into the public sphere. They maintain that a full picture of what happened and any assessment of blame can only be determined after a complete review of all the evidence. But as documents continue to surface in the final days of the presidential campaign, the intensity of allegations of administration impropriety or incompetence has risen.

A look at what is known, what is still unanswered and who is investigating the incident that has called into doubt Washington's ability to predict such events, secure American personnel in dangerous places and track down those responsible.

THE UNDISPUTED FACTS:

At 9:40 p.m. local time on Sept. 11, the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States, organized, well-armed attackers stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The attack occurred within hours of demonstrators in neighboring Egypt scaling the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to protest an American-made, anti-Islam film. Those protests spread in the following days across the Muslim world from Morocco to India, with 50 people killed.

The attackers breached the Benghazi consulate's perimeter and set fire to parts of the compound, including the building where Stevens, his security guard and State Department information officer Sean Smith, took refuge in a safe room. Diplomatic security agents on the site notified Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and a nearby CIA office of the attack. They tried, unsuccessfully, to repel the assault. Reinforcements arrived from the CIA annex to evacuate those on the compound, but Smith was already dead and Stevens could not be found. The group fell back to the CIA annex, which later came under well-aimed mortar fire, killing CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs. The bodies of the victims and the survivors of the attack were evacuated from Benghazi.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon advised Obama of the attack at about 5 p.m. in Washington (11 p.m. in Libya) while he was meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Obama ordered that the U.S. begin moving military assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies. Those didn't arrive until the fighting was over at 4 a.m. Libya time, or 10 p.m. in Washington.

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS:

Q: Was there an intelligence failure? Did the Obama administration know about threats to the Benghazi consulate that could have allowed it to either prevent or turn back the attack?

A: Multiple senior administration officials have said there was no specific, credible threat information about a planned attack on the consulate on Sept. 11 or any other date. U.S. officials have said that while they now believe the attack was planned, it appears that it was planned a few hours in advance, not days or weeks.

However, those officials also have noted a serious deterioration in the security situation in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack, including several previous incidents at the consulate itself, the office of the International Red Cross and an attempt on the life of the British ambassador to Libya.

Former Libya-based security officials have said the threat environment was extremely dangerous and Stevens himself had written cables back to Washington stressing the worsening conditions and heightened extremist activity. And documents found at the site six weeks after the attack indicate that consulate employees noticed a local Libyan police officer taking photos of the consulate from a building across the street on the morning of Sept. 11, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

The White House was aware of a growing terrorist threat in the region. It signed off a year ago on a new counterterrorism task force in North Africa to combat what it believes is a growing threat from al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali, Libya and elsewhere in the region. An elite Delta Force team has been in the region for six months, beginning to set up its intelligence and targeting network.

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