WASHINGTON The State Department now says it never believed the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a film protest gone awry, giving congressional Republicans new fodder for criticizing the Obama administration's initial accounts of the assault.
The State Department's extraordinary break with other administration offices came in a department briefing Tuesday, where officials said "others" in the executive branch concluded initially that the protest was based, like others in the Middle East, on a film that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad.
That was never the department's conclusion, a senior official told reporters.
The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing Wednesday on diplomatic security in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The attack as become a political football in the final weeks before the election.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has accused the State Department of turning aside pleas from its diplomats in Libya to increase security in the months and weeks before the attack in Benghazi. One scheduled witness Wednesday, Eric Nordstrom, is the former chief security officer for U.S. diplomats in Libya who told the committee his pleas for more security were ignored.
Briefing reporters Tuesday ahead of the hearing, department officials were asked about the administration's initial -- and since retracted -- explanation linking the violence to protests over an American-made anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet. One official responded, without specifying, that it was a question for others to answer.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, and provided no evidence that might suggest a case of spontaneous violence or angry protests that went too far.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican lawmakers have increasingly sharpened their criticism of the administration's initial explanation of the attack. They said they never accepted the original explanation.
It was a top administration diplomatic official, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who gave a series of interviews five days after the attack that wrongly described the attack as spontaneous.
She said that the administration believed the violence was unplanned and that extremists with heavier weapons "hijacked" the protest against the anti-Islamic video. She did qualify her remarks to say that was the best information she had at the time. Rice since has denied trying to mislead Congress.
A concurrent CIA memo obtained by The Associated Press cited intelligence suggesting the demonstrations in Benghazi "were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo" and "evolved into a direct assault" on the diplomatic posts by "extremists."
"A lot of people got the information wrong. Part of the problem is that ... this needs to be an investigation into the facts and what it's come to is a debate on politics in an election year," senior correspondent John Miller said on "CBS This Morning."
Nordstrom, the former security official in Libya, addressed the diplomatic security issue in an Oct. 1 email to a congressional investigator. He said his requests for more security were blocked by a department policy to "normalize operations and reduce security resources."
A memo Tuesday by the Oversight Committee's Democratic staff provided details of Nordstrom's interview with the panel's investigators. In that interview, Nordstrom said he sent two cables to State Department headquarters in March 2012 and July 2012 requesting additional diplomatic security agents for Benghazi, but he received no responses.
He stated that Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs, wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi artificially low. He said Lamb believed the Benghazi facilities did not need any diplomatic security special agents because there was a residential safe haven to fall back to in an emergency.
Nordstrom's Oct. 1 memo to the congressional investigator said, "You will note that there were a number of incidents that targeted diplomatic missions and underscored the GoL's (government of Libya) inability to secure and protect diplomatic missions.
"This was a significant part of (the diplomatic) post's and my argument for maintaining continued DS (diplomatic security) and DOD (Department of Defense) security assets into Sept/Oct. 2012; the GoL was overwhelmed and could not guarantee our protection.
"Sadly, that point was reaffirmed on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi."
Attached to that memo was a list of 230 security incidents in Libya between June 2011 and July 2012 in a report that ultimately concluded that "the risk of U.S. Mission personnel, private U.S. citizens, or businesspersons encountering an isolating event as a result of militia or political violence is HIGH."
Senior State Department officials on Tuesday revealed for the first time certain details of the deadly consulate attack, such as the efforts of a quick reaction force that rushed onto the scene and led the evacuation in a fierce gun battle that continued into the streets and included a daring car escape against traffic.
The officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Ambassador Chris Stevens arrived in Benghazi and held meetings on and off the consulate grounds on Sept. 10. He spent the night, and then out of prudence spent the whole of the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks meeting people inside the compound, an enclosed area about 300 yards long by 100 yards wide, with a 9-foot outer wall topped by barbed wire and augmented by barriers, steel drop bars and other security upgrades.
When Stevens finished his final meeting of the day, he escorted a Turkish diplomat outside the main entrance of the building. The situation was calm, the officials said, and there were no protests. Five U.S. agents and four local militiamen were providing security.
A little more than an hour later, around 9:40 p.m., everything changed.
The compound's agents were alerted by loud noises, gunfire and explosions near the front gate. A barracks near the entrance for the local militiamen was burned down. In the control center, agents watched on cameras as a large group of armed men flowed into the compound. They immediately sounded the alarm and made telephone calls to the embassy in Tripoli, officials in Washington, the Libyan authorities and the U.S. quick reaction force located at a second compound a little over a mile away.