Questions Persist About Deadly U.S. Consulate Attack

Two weeks after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, there remain many competing accounts of how it began. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Should security should have been better, and what role did al-Qaida play, if any?

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The Obama administration has gradually changed its public understanding of what happened when a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Libya this month. In the midst of an election campaign, critics have accused the administration of downplaying security lapses and links to terrorism. Administration officials have said they were waiting for better information. Behind this debate is the straightforward question of what did happen and when, as best we know. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been covering this story. She's on the line.

Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let me start before the attack, before September 11 of this year. What was security like at that consulate in Benghazi?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know that there had been a growing sense of unease about security in Benghazi that was ramping up during the summer. There was a small attack with explosives against the U.S. consulate in June. There'd been an attack against a U.N. representative and another one against the British ambassador who was visiting Benghazi. In fact, the British consulate actually shut its doors after that. But there wasn't a big change in the security at the U.S. consulate.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. So they knew of these problems but did not ramp up security at the consulate?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, it seems that way. I mean I think that's probably where we'll see a lot of the second guessing in the coming weeks, since the situation was heating up, and the September 11th anniversary was looming. The question is, why wasn't security tighter?

INSKEEP: Were officials saying - are officials saying to you now, listen, you know, it's an ambassador. It's people that are supposed to be in touch with the Libyan public, there's only so much we can do?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They are to a certain extent. I mean there was a general sense of unease, as opposed to anything very, very specific. And U.S. officials have said from the beginning that there was no what they call actionable intelligence. In other words, there was no specific, credible threat against the consulate. No suspicious communications were being picked up, no one walked in with a tip.

You know, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, talked to reporters about this yesterday at the Pentagon. And this is how he characterized the threat picture in Benghazi.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: There was a thread of intelligence reporting that groups in the environment in western - correction, eastern - Libya were seeking to coalesce, but there wasn't anything specific and certainly not a specific threat to the consulate that I am aware of.

INSKEEP: Since he says not a specific threat, what in the minds of military officials is a specific threat? Does that mean we didn't know of anybody specifically planning an attack on this place on this day? What does that mean exactly?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, they had been listening for some time above eastern - the groups in eastern Libya. They had had drones and they were listening to their communications. And what they were trying to listen for was something specific. You know, let's get the consulate, groups coalescing and making plans about perhaps an attack. None of that was anything that they had heard in the run-up. That's what they're talking about.

INSKEEP: OK. A couple of other things quickly here. Once the attack actually started, there have been conflicting accounts about whether this was some kind of protest that got out of hand, if it was a mob, if it was a terrorist group, if it was multiple things at once. What do they think now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you'd think that the easiest part of this to pin down would be whether there was a protest against this offensive video about the Prophet Muhammad. And for some reason this has been the most difficult thing for us to determine. The Libyans say there was never a protest. And right up until yesterday I was talking with sources who said that there was a protest.

I think that's one of the things the FBI is trying to determine. The reason why this is so important is if this was spontaneous, the administration would be much less vulnerable to criticism that they should have seen it coming. And I think that's why they're trying to get to the bottom of what sparked all this.

INSKEEP: OK. And one more thing: What evidence points to a connection to al-Qaida in this attack?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think what officials are saying now is that this was a terrorist attack, but they don't know exactly which terrorists. There was some evidence that pointed to al-Qaida having some role because the U.S. had been monitoring these phone calls in eastern Libya.

And intelligence officials told me they'd picked up a phone call from some of the members of al-Qaida's North African affiliate after the attack and they were congratulating themselves. There also seemed to be a phone call that came in on the afternoon of September 11th before the attack. But that doesn't shed much light on the role they played. It's just an important data point to investigate.

INSKEEP: OK. Dina, thanks for giving us all the data that are available at this time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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