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The Hot Seat

What you need to know about Benghazi going into this week's congressional hearings.

The election might be over, but the Benghazi fiasco isn't -- not nearly. Congress is gearing up this week for another round of hearings on the Sept. 11 attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In total, four House and Senate panels are due to hold closed-door briefings this week, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), expected to kick things off on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.

In the two months since Ambassador Stevens's death, a dizzying amount of information -- some of it contradictory -- has emerged about the security situation in Benghazi and the administration's handling of the attack. Here's a guide to what we know, what we don't, and what's likely to come up as lawmakers try to get to the bottom of it all this week.

Protest or planned attack?

In the immediate aftermath of the consular attack, President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials generally portrayed the incident as a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim YouTube video that had sparked protests across the Middle East. In his initial remarks from the Rose Garden, Obama said that "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," but did not directly refer to the attack as a terrorist plot. (He was more explicit a day later.)

Soon after, White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration had any "actionable intelligence" that the attack was "planned or imminent." On "Face the Nation" on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told Bob Schieffer that the attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo." Her remarks were caveated, and according to the New York Times, she was merely repeating talking points given to her by the CIA. Moreover, one intelligence official insisted to the paper, "The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."

Interestingly, Paula Broadwell, the alleged paramour of David Petraeus, explained in an Oct. 26 talk why the CIA director may have been concerned about the link between those protests and what happened in Benghazi. "[I]f you remember at the time -- the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo -- there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world," she said. "Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us."

She added: "So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton's shoes or the president's shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it's true that we have signal intelligence that shows the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort."

The administration's initial account also dovetailed with early reports from the New York Times and Reuters, which placed unarmed demonstrators as well as armed assailants outside the consulate in Benghazi. As Reuters reported, "The attackers were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad." By Sept. 20, however, the administration had clearly acknowledged that the attack was indeed a terrorist attack and on Oct. 9, State Department officials said that the supposed protest outside the consulate never occurred. Currently, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that some combination of three militant groups was behind the consular attack: Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamal Network.

The administration's mischaracterization of events -- which its critics have attributed to political calculations -- is sure to come up at the hearings, as is the apparently poor intelligence with which the administration was working. Even if no one was intentionally misleading the public, lawmakers will likely want to know why a consulate that was primarily a CIA front did not know what was happening immediately outside its walls -- or how the intelligence community could still be feeding the administration bad information weeks after the fact.

We hired who for security?

In addition to the five U.S. diplomatic security agents stationed on the compound and the CIA's "rapid reaction" team, located at an annex a little more than a mile away, the United States relied on a local militia called the 17th of February Brigade to guard the consulate against intruders. According to the Washington Post, the decision was probably made for lack of a better alternative (international law requires the Libyan government to furnish protection for foreign diplomatic outposts that it's simply incapable of providing), but it ultimately proved costly.

When assailants breached the diplomatic compound on Sept. 11, the two members of the 17th of February Brigade on duty apparently hid on the roof while their off-duty comrades failed to respond to the CIA's repeated requests for backup. Given this miserable failure, we should expect questions about the wisdom of trusting a rag-tag collection of militiamen with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood -- all the more so because McClatchy has reported that, while most embassies hire local security, "only the United States of the 10 or so foreign missions here allowed the local militia to be the first line of defense."

Sparse timelines

Both the CIA and the Pentagon have released timelines of the Benghazi attack, but they are sparse and contain few points of convergence to suggest how or whether they coordinated their responses. (Both timelines also conflict with the accounts of local witnesses, who say the attack began as many as 15 minutes earlier than the United States says it did.)

The Pentagon's timeline begins simply with: "9:42 p.m. -- Armed men begin their assault on the U.S. Consulate." It provides no explanation of how Defense Department officials learned of the attack or whether they were in contact with the CIA's rapid response team on the ground. The appearance of an unarmed surveillance drone in both timelines suggests some level of cooperation, especially since the CIA's timeline states that the drone failed to observe the mortars that eventually killed CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, but lawmakers will likely want to fill these and other holes in the current accounting.

Rapid response team told to "stand down"?

In the CIA's version of events, a State Department security officer at the consulate called the CIA annex to request backup within minutes of the attack, prompting a team to "immediately" begin "gathering weapons and preparing to leave," which it did about 25 minutes later. But Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reported that CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who received the State Department's request for backup at the annex, were twice told to "stand down" by superiors before they "ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire."

The CIA has vigorously disputed Fox's claim: "We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate," a CIA spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. Whether or not there's any truth to the Fox story, which is based on testimony from anonymous "sources who were on the ground in Benghazi," this discrepancy will likely come up in the congressional hearings. Likewise, lawmakers will likely want to answer one question the Fox report didn't -- namely, who ordered the CIA operatives to "stand down" if, in fact," they were ordered to do so.

Another question that may come up is why, according to the CIA's timeline, the Global Response Staff team that arrived in Benghazi from Tripoli at 1:15 a.m. did not leave the airport until 4:30 a.m. The timeline explains away the lapse by citing "negotiations with Libyan authorities over permission to leave the airport; obtaining vehicles; and the need to frame a clear mission plan." It's certainly possible that they were delayed by local authorities, but it seems likely that lawmakers will want to know why a trained military response squad couldn't negotiate a couple of rental cars in under three hours. Likewise, there are unanswered questions about why reinforcements were needed in the first place. Out of more than 30 employees at the consulate in Benghazi, only seven worked for the State Department. "Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate," according to the Wall Street Journal. If there were so many CIA operatives at the consulate, why did it fall to Doherty and Woods to make a heroic defense of the compound?

Pentagon response

If the CIA's response to the consular attack remains murky, the Pentagon's isn't much clearer -- and why the best DOD could manage was an unarmed surveillance drone is almost certain to come up at the hearings this week. According to the Pentagon's timeline, it took Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta more than three hours after the consulate was breached to order Marine anti-terrorist teams scrambled from Spain and Croatia -- and another 40-50 minutes for them to receive formal authorization -- meaning that they did not arrive in Libya until almost 24 hours after the attack began. By that time, the consular officials, CIA officers, and contractors had been evacuated along with the bodies of Stevens, Woods, Doherty, and Sean Smith, a technology expert who died alongside the ambassador.

Panetta maintained that the Pentagon did everything in its power to respond in a timely manner, but congressional Republicans have already raised questions about the Defense Department's handling of the situation. Panetta's explanation "only confirms what we already knew -- that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya," wrote Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and five other senators in a joint statement. But it "fails to address the most important question -- why not?" Expect lawmakers to get into why the U.S. Africa Command did not have a Commanders' In-Extremis Force, or C.I.F., on hand, and why no armed drones or gunships were readily accessible.

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Backstory

It Ain't 1979 Anymore

Why this week's attacks on American embassies aren't the Iran hostage crisis all over again.

Americans could be forgiven this week for having an awful feeling of déjà vu. On the anniversary of 9/11, Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag, and replaced it with a black one that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to al Qaeda's trademark pennant. "Obama, Obama there are still a billion Osamas," chanted the mix of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims and soccer hooligans, known as "ultras," who claimed to be protesting a U.S.-made film that insults the Prophet Mohammed.

A little less than 700 miles to the west, Libyan militants who claimed to be equally incensed by the film -- allegedly produced by an obscure Israeli-American filmmaker who is now in hiding -- overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and set it ablaze. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in a rocket attack on their vehicle as they attempted to flee the compound, according the Washington Post's version of the story. It was the first killing of a U.S. ambassador since 1979, when Adolf Dubs was kidnapped and shot by radical militiamen in a Kabul hotel.

Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of Islamists across much of the Middle East, Tuesday's events can't help but call to mind the outpouring of anti-American sentiment of that earlier era. By late 1979, a toxic mix of Iranian anti-Americanism, Saudi petrodollars, and conspiracy theorizing touched off a wave of attacks on U.S. embassies across the Muslim world. The first -- and most chronicled -- attack occurred on Nov. 4, when radical Iranian students, upset by President Jimmy Carter's decision to let the deposed shah seek medical treatment in the United States, overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 63 Americans hostage. (Three more hostages were taken at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, but 14 were eventually released, bringing the total number to 52.) During the subsequent 444-day standoff, resentment toward American "imperialism" continued to fester and U.S. embassies in the Muslim world began to look increasingly like sitting ducks.

The embassy seizure in Iran was actually just one of several such attacks across the Muslim world that year. When Saudi Arabian militants led by Juhayman al-Utaybi, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Nov. 20, many across the region instinctively blamed the United States and Israel -- the two most popular targets of Iranian vituperation and the source of perceived humiliation for many. That morning, Saudi Arabian officials declined to identify the perpetrators and Radio Tehran happily supplied its own narrative: "It is not far-fetched to assume that this act has been perpetrated by the criminal American imperialism so that it can infiltrate the solid ranks of Muslims by such intrigues."

In Pakistan, where General Zia ul Huq was actively courting young firebrand Islamists to shore up his political base, the students at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad reached the same conclusion. Clamoring by the busload to the U.S. Embassy, radical student members of Jamaa-e-Islami, some of whom were armed, quickly breached the compound, killing one Marine and taking another American hostage. The students proceeded to set fire to the embassy, forcing the staff to take refuge in the code room vault while the compound burned around them. Finally, after the Americans had spent more than five hours in the blistering heat of the vault, Pakistani troops arrived from their headquarters in Rawalpindi, not half an hour's drive from the embassy, and the crowds melted away.

The attack was a close call for the United States. As Steve Coll notes in Ghost Wars, "Had events taken a slight turn for the worse, the riot would have produced one of the most catastrophic losses of life in U.S. diplomatic history." But the wave of anti-Americanism had not yet crested and it would be less than two weeks before radicals lashed out against the United States again -- this time in Libya.

On Dec. 2, throngs of students began assembling outside the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, chanting "Death to America" and burning President Carter in effigy. After the embassy staff, led by CIA station chief Jack McCavitt, managed to escape through an adjacent apartment complex, Libyan students and security officials stormed the compound, carting away boxes of documents they believed to be sensitive. According to Yaroslav Trofimov's The Siege of Mecca, however, the Libyans got mostly cashiers' records, publicly accessible Foreign Service regulations, and the embassy's "Learn a Foreign Language" tapes in Italian.

But if there were an ounce of humor in the Libyan fiasco, it was eclipsed by the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the seriousness of America's image problem in the Muslim world. "[T]he Iranian revolution was not isolated," as Trofimov put it. "The fervent anti-American propaganda coming out of Tehran was making Muslims worldwide see the U.S. as the enemy of their faith." And worse than that, radicals were learning that there was little price to be paid for standing up to the Americans. As the historian Bernard Lewis recalled, "If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there by no punishment, but there might even be some reward."

The question now, as the world tries to make sense of the fresh wave of anti-American attacks sweeping across the Middle East, is whether the United States faces anything like the ideological force it stared down in 1979. For now, the answer appears to be no. In 1979, the success of the Iranian revolution breathed new life into Islamist movements across the world that dreamed of establishing an Islamic state. Even Sunni extremist groups, whose puritanical "petro-Islam" was anathema to the revolutionary Shiite fervor emanating from Tehran, were jolted awake by Ayatollah Khomeini's meteoric rise. Establishing an Islamic state independent of the West no longer felt like a distant possibility.

Today, that experiment has clearly failed. Those who still seek to reestablish a caliphate -- al Qaeda and a smattering of fringe Islamist organizations -- are struggling to remain relevant in the post-Arab Spring world. The advent of democracy in parts of the Middle East and the triumph of mainstream Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia portends a very different future than what Khomeini envisioned in 1979. In such an environment, anti-Americanism will doubtlessly remain a fact of life -- particularly because of its political salience in nascent democracies. But the days when extremist ideologues preaching "death to America" could attract university students by the thousands across the Muslim world might well be over.

The circumstances of Tuesday's attacks provide further reassurance that this is not 1979 all over again. In Egypt, the ranks of demonstrators swelled outside the embassy only after football "ultras" -- upset that Egypt's Premier League season had been delayed a month following their attack on the Egyptian Football Association's headquarters -- opted for an alternative venue to vent their frustrations. (A video posted on the Facebook page of Egypt's Al-Hekma channel, titled "Ultras Zamalek tear the American flag in front of the embassy," shows the football faithful gleefully scaling the flagpole.)

The attack in Libya, moreover, while certainly more worrisome because of its deadly consequences, probably has more to do with the new government's inability to control local militias than with anti-Americanism run amok. Indeed, Libyan officials from across the political spectrum condemned the attack, with President Mohamed Magariaf leading the way: "We refuse that our nation's lands be used for cowardice and revengeful acts. It is not a victory for God's sharia or his prophet for such disgusting acts to take place," he said. "We apologize to the United States, the people of America, and the entire world. We and the American government are standing on the same side, we stand on the same side against outlaws."

It is a far cry from the tirade broadcast by the official Libyan Jamahiriya News Agency following the embassy attack in Tripoli nearly 33 years ago: "Upon the students' breaking into the embassy, the staff fired toxic gases believed to be used only by the military, confirming that the embassy employees are military personnel," railed the radio broadcaster, who went on to blame the Americans for the "injury of several Libyan students." For all the instability and chaos of the Middle East today, here's the good news: It's not 1979 anymore.

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