BENGHAZI, Libya -- To be in Benghazi in the aftermath of the U.S. consulate attack is to find yourself living in a parallel world.
In front of your eyes, in a compound still reeking of smoke, is the evidence of a chaotic attack which left an ambassador slain thanks to a still more chaotic defense. But from Washington comes a stream of misreporting, errant briefings, and misinformed speculation that leaves you gasping.
Susan Rice still has to explain what piece of intelligence left her sure that this vicious attack morphed from an anti-American protest that everyone now acknowledges never happened. And some of her Republican foes are equally wide of the mark in insisting this was a well-run Al-Qaeda operation that has put America's Mideast policy through the shredder.
The baffling truth is that the consulate attack was haphazard, poorly planned, and badly executed. It succeeded in killing ambassador Christopher Stevens, a fellow diplomat, and two brave former U.S. Navy SEALs, because security -- normally the watchword of U.S. missions across the world -- was close to non-existent.
Consider the evidence on the ground. Protests in Libya are popular affairs. In Benghazi, they are a nearly daily occurrence, the latest being by several hundred policemen who block traffic each night outside the central Tibesti Hotel, demanding back pay.
These protests are preceded by a flurry of information on Facebook, and followed by a torrent of grainy cell phone pictures of the event. For the consulate attack, there was nothing.
I got to Benghazi on the 13th, as the first reporters began picking their way through the detritus, and stayed on to watch the anger against the militias build among the population -- along with indignation over the failure of police to show up and investigate the crime scene. (The image above shows the deserted consulate building as it looked last week.)
Plenty of people had a view of the dozen armed men gathering outside the back gate just prior to the attack, and all were adamant that there was no protest. The first the witnesses knew of the attack was the sound of gunfire from around the front of the embassy, followed by an attempt by a Libyan guard to escape through the rear. He was ordered back inside by the armed men who, say the witnesses, then fired through the back gate.
A genuinely organized attacking force would have blown open the gates. None of them show signs of damage, other than two bullets through one of the front gates and 22 through one of those on the back.
Still more baffling is the lack of any bullet holes inside the compound. The official State Department version is of a prolonged battle inside the compound as agents found themselves trapped inside buildings until a force of diplomats arrived to do battle with the intruders. If so, they did it with only two bullet strikes being left in the buildings.