WASHINGTON (AP) — To congressional Republicans, “Benghazi” is shorthand for incompetence and cover-up. Democrats hear it as the hollow sound of pointless investigations targeting presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It is, in fact, a Mediterranean port city in Libya that was the site of two attacks within hours of each other on a U.S. compound on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and into the next day. The attacks killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. That’s nearly all that U.S. politicians can agree on about Benghazi.
It’s been a political rallying cry since just weeks before President Barack Obama’s re-election in November 2012. With the House investigation likely to continue into next year, Benghazi will remain a buzz word for the 2016 presidential race.
Clinton’s testimony at a widely anticipated public hearing on Thursday could make or break the credibility of the 17-month-old inquiry led by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
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A guide to the controversy:
SETTING THE SCENE
The 2011 revolt that deposed and killed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, with the help of NATO warships and planes, began in Benghazi. A year later, the city of 1 million remained chaotic, in the grip of heavily armed militias and Islamist militants, some with links to al-Qaida.
The temporary U.S. diplomatic mission, created to build ties and encourage stability and democracy, was struck by homemade bombs twice in the spring of 2012. British diplomats, the Red Cross and other Westerners were targeted that spring and summer.
Stevens, based in the capital city of Tripoli, chose to visit Benghazi on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when U.S. embassies around the world were on alert for terrorism.
In Egypt that day, a different sort of trouble struck. Protesters angry about an anti-Muslim video made in America stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, clambering over the walls and setting flags on fire.
Hours later, the assault in Benghazi began.
A FIERY ASSAULT AND FOUR DEATHS
The Benghazi attacks came in three waves, spread over eight hours at two locations.
According to accounts from congressional investigators and the State Department’s Accountability Review Board:
Around 9:40 p.m. local time, a few attackers scaled the wall of the diplomatic post and opened the front gate, allowing dozens of armed men in. Local Libyan security guards fled. A U.S. security officer shepherded Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department communications specialist, into a fortified “safe room” in the main building.
Attackers set the building and its furniture on fire. Stevens and Smith were overcome by blinding, choking smoke that prevented security officers from reaching them. Libyan civilians found Stevens in the wreckage hours later and took him to a hospital, where he, like Smith, died of smoke inhalation.
Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in more than 30 years.
A security team from the CIA annex about a mile away arrived to help about 25 minutes into the attack, armed only with rifles and handguns. The U.S. personnel fled with Smith’s body back to the annex in armored vehicles.
Hours after the first attack ended, the annex was twice targeted by early morning mortar fire. The second round killed Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, two CIA security contractors who were defending the annex from the rooftop.
A team of six security officials summoned from Tripoli and a Libyan military unit helped evacuate the remaining U.S. personnel on the site to the airport and out of Benghazi.
THE FALLOUT BACK HOME
Word hit Washington in the final weeks of the presidential race. Over the next several days, the Benghazi news blended with images of angry anti-American demonstrations and flag-burnings spreading across the Middle East over the offensive video.
Political reaction to the Benghazi attack quickly formed along partisan lines that hold fast to this day.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other Republicans said Obama had emboldened Islamic extremists by being weak against terrorism. But the public still credited Obama with the successful strike against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a few months earlier in Pakistan.
The accusation that took hold was a Republican charge that the White House intentionally misled voters by portraying the Benghazi assault as one of the many protests over the video, instead of a calculated terrorist attack under his watch.
Obama accused the Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy. He insists that the narrative about the video protests was the best information available at the time.
After at least seven investigations, more than a dozen public hearings and the release of more than 50,000 pages of documents over the past three years, the arguments remain the same.
WHY WAS DIPLOMATIC POST SO VULNERABLE?
Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed: The State Department under Clinton kept open the Benghazi mission, which employed a few State employees and more than two dozen CIA workers, with little protection in the midst of well-known dangers.
The attack probably could have been prevented if officials had heeded intelligence warnings about the deteriorating situation in eastern Libya, a bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee said.
Britain closed its Benghazi mission in June 2012, after an attack on the British ambassador’s convoy.
Stevens’ requests for more security, made clear in cables to State Department headquarters during July and August, went unheeded, according to the Senate report, as did those made by his predecessor earlier that year. But Stevens also twice declined the U.S. military’s offer of a special operations team to bolster security and otherwise help his staff.
The month after the fatal assault, Clinton declared she had been responsible for the safety of those serving in Benghazi, without acknowledging any specific mistakes on her part. Obama said the blame ultimately rested on his shoulders as president.
The administration continued to distance both of them, however, saying neither Clinton nor Obama was aware of the requests for better protection because security decisions were handled at lower levels.
Four senior State Department officials were put on paid leave after the independent accountability board said that security at the Benghazi mission that night was “grossly inadequate.” After a review, the department reassigned three officials to positions of lesser responsibility; one resigned.
Some Republicans complained that no one was fired. Critics also questioned why the board didn’t interview Clinton during its investigation.
Democrats tried to shift some blame to GOP lawmakers, complaining that they had cut the administration’s budget request for diplomatic security in 2012.
WHY DIDN’T THE MILITARY COME TO THE RESCUE?
No military resources were in position to counter the surprise attack, according to several bipartisan and GOP-led congressional investigations.
The military sent surveillance drones that relayed information to the security officers on the ground. It began moving Marines and special forces toward Libya, but the surviving American personnel were evacuated before they could arrive. Two Defense Department personnel arrived from Tripoli to help transport the Americans to the Benghazi airport.
House and Senate investigators rejected persistent claims that the military had been ordered to “stand down” as the tragedy unfolded. The 54 witnesses interviewed by the House Benghazi panel also have refuted the claim, according to a report released Monday by committee Democrats.
Congressional investigators have faulted the military, however, for failing to anticipate the possibility of such an emergency in Benghazi and not having a response plan ready.
DID OBAMA INTENTIONALLY MISLEAD AMERICANS?
Obama’s opponents focused on the “talking points,” a memo prepared for lawmakers and for then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to help her get ready for appearances on the Sunday news shows to discuss the attack less than a week after it occurred.
That memo is offered as evidence of a possible White House cover-up. It offers something that’s golden to investigators: a paper trail.
The administration later released 100 pages of emails documenting its editing of the talking points, first composed by the CIA. The final version omitted references to possible al-Qaida influences in the attack and retained the theory that it grew out of a street protest.
On television, Rice described the attack as a “horrific incident where some mob was hijacked, ultimately, by a handful of extremists.” Since then, numerous investigations have concluded there were no protesters outside the Benghazi compound before the armed assault.
“WHAT DIFFERENCE, AT THIS POINT, DOES IT MAKE?”
As the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton is the prime political target of the Benghazi probe.
Earlier this month, she called the inquiry a partisan political exercise designed to “exploit” the deaths of four Americans. Republicans “chose … to go after me for political reasons,” she said in a televised interview Oct. 5.
Gowdy denies that and says the committee has been and remains focused on those killed in Benghazi and on providing a definitive account of the attacks.
In her last congressional testimony on the attacks, in January 2013, Clinton rejected GOP suggestions that the administration tried to mislead the country about the attacks. She said she was focused on how to improve security and that it didn’t matter what triggered the assault.
“What difference, at this point, does it make?” she asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., with evident exasperation. “It is our job to figure out what happened and prevent it from ever happening again, senator.”
House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans aren’t playing politics. He called Gowdy “the best person to ensure the American people know the truth about what happened” in Benghazi.
WHAT’S HAPPENED WITH THE HOUSE COMMITTEE’S INVESTIGATION?
Since it was created in May 2014, the committee has held three public hearings, the last in January.
Gowdy said the committee has interviewed 54 witnesses, including seven eyewitnesses to the attacks who had not been interviewed in previous investigations. The committee also has reviewed more than 50,000 pages of documents never before given to Congress, including emails from the ambassador and other top State Department personnel.
Gowdy and other Republicans have complained that the Obama administration has resisted their efforts by slow-walking emails and other documents needed to complete the inquiry. In March, it was revealed that Clinton used a private email account for government business.
Democrats complain that they have been frozen out of some of the committee interviews.
The committee is authorized to investigate and issue a final report on policies, decisions and activities that contributed to the attacks, what hampered the ability of the U.S. to prepare for them and how the U.S. responded. Its work is expected to continue into 2016 — a presidential election year.
It took nearly two years for the U.S. to make its first arrest in the case. Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured in June 2014 by U.S. special forces and brought to the United States to face trial. Khattala, 43, is the first militant to be prosecuted for the Benghazi violence.
Among other charges, he is accused of providing material support to terrorists, malicious destruction of property and attempted murder of an officer and U.S. employee. He has pleaded not guilty. The Justice Department has not decided whether to pursue the death penalty.
The administration has named two militant groups that officials believe were among the attackers. The suspected groups are considered ideological cousins of the terrorists behind the 2001attacks, but State Department officials say they don’t think core al-Qaida leaders orchestrated the Benghazi attack.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.