CAIRO — Lost in the controversy over who requested revisions of CIA-written talking points on September’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans is one key fact: In every iteration of the document, the CIA asserted that a video protest preceded the assaults, and no official reviewing the talking points suggested that that was in error.
Yet interviews with U.S. officials and others indicate that they knew nearly immediately that there had been no protest outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi before attackers stormed it, setting a fire that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department computer expert. A subsequent attack on a CIA annex nearby killed two security contractors, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Why the CIA insisted that there had been a protest tied to a YouTube video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad for several days after the attack, mirroring some news reports, has never been publicly explained.
McClatchy, in a dispatch the day after the assault on the complex, quoted the landlord of the building that housed the U.S. mission as saying there had been no protest before the attack began. “They attacked right away,” Mohammed al Bishari said. A Libyan security guard gave a similar account two days after the attack, describing the area outside the mission as quiet before the attack. “There wasn’t a single ant outside,” he said.
But those reports were hardly the only evidence available before the controversial talking points were completed Sept. 15. The guards who were at the compound said there was no protest before the attack. So did European diplomats and residents who were nearby. State Department officials watched the attack in real time from security cameras mounted around the Benghazi compound. Libya’s president called claims of a protest beforehand “preposterous.”
Still, the claim that a protest preceded the attack remained unchallenged, even as officials deleted from the talking points references to previous CIA warnings about declining security in Libya and to suspicions that a local militant group, Ansar al Sharia, had led the attack.
On Monday, President Barack Obama dismissed the debate of the talking points as a “sideshow.”
"Suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story," Obama said at a White House press conference. "There’s no there there."
Obama said the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used in a series of television appearances Sept. 16 "pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time."
Where the information came from to inform those points has yet to emerge. Libyans interviewed in Benghazi in the days and weeks after the attack on the U.S. mission said they first heard about the video three hours before the attack began.
That conforms with what is generally known about the mood inside the U.S. Benghazi compound on the day of the attack, where nerves were on edge because U.S. officials had spotted a Libyan police officer taking pictures of the compound from the second floor of a house under construction across the street. From that position, the policeman could see the entire layout of the compound.
Consulate officials drafted a protest to Libyan officials, seeking more security, though it is likely that protest was never sent. Later that night, Smith, the computer technician, would type an ominous message to a friend: “assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”
But the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi took none of the precautions that would be normal if they had expected trouble.
In Cairo, for example, embassy officials had evacuated the compound well in advance of a protest that erupted over the video.
In Benghazi, by contrast, Stevens met as scheduled with a Turkish diplomat and made no mention of the video or a potential attack on the compound, a diplomat familiar with the details of that meeting told McClatchy. In fact, the only extraordinary security measure that day was to stay on the compound grounds because it was the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the diplomat said.
Stevens apparently became aware that a mob had stormed the embassy in Cairo from news reports. In his testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week, Gregory Hicks, who was Stevens’ deputy, said he received a call from Stevens asking what was happening in Cairo. Hicks testified that he told Stevens that protesters had torn down the American flag in Cairo.
“Thanks,” Stevens responded, Hicks said. Stevens made no mention of protests in Benghazi.
Hicks next heard from Stevens after the attack in what was likely Stevens’ last phone communication.
The fact that Stevens was in the mission when gunmen stormed it provided more evidence that there was no protest. Had there been, security procedures in place called for the ambassador to be removed from the compound through a back gate, a security guard told McClatchy.
But no such evacuation took place. A European diplomat who was having dinner at a nearby restaurant said he saw no activity at the back gate, as did a grocer in a shop directly behind the compound.
At the mission’s front gate, according to guards, everything was quiet until a convoy of trucks came down the long bumpy road leading to the compound. The guards, unarmed, fled, and someone hit the panic button. At the State Department, a Diplomatic Security Service agent watched the attack in real time and alerted authorities. That video has become a key part of the investigation, as it captured the faces of some of the attackers.
Hicks said he never believed there was a protest beforehand and was surprised to hear it included in the talking points a week later.
The night of the attack, the U.S. military scrambled a drone to fly over the mission, which captured images of men storming the compound. A U.S. defense official familiar with the military’s response that night said no one in U.S. Africa Command believed there had been a protest.
Yet the idea of a protest was included as the first “fact” in the talking points. And no one challenged its being there.
Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef