Six weeks following the assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, many questions remain regarding the nature of the attacks, what the Obama administration knew and when, and the way that knowledge was delivered to the public. Adding to that confusion is the GOP’s desire to politicize the issue in the run-up to the presidential election.
Mitt Romney was widely scorned for criticizing Obama in the assault’s immediate aftermath for allegedly sympathizing with the attackers. But days later, Romney, his allies and other pundits found an opening to again criticize the administration. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice claimed that the attack in Libya was an outgrowth of the protests in Cairo against an anti-Muslim film. But the administration’s story soon changed.
This shift in story — while always likely given the nature of intelligence — launched a new round of condemnation against Obama. Accusations and speculation of administration lies and cover-ups have been the major focus of the narrative since then.
But the reality is much more nuanced than what the built-up narrative suggests. The following is a timeline of not the attack itself, but the response to it, by the Obama administration, Mitt Romney’s campaign and the right-wing:
September 11, 2012: Protests take place at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The anger was reportedly sparked by a video, purported to be the trailer of a full-length movie, called “The Innocence of Muslims,” that portrayed Islam in a highly negative and derogatory light. This demonstration will soon spread to other cities throughout the Middle East, including Khartoum, Sanaa and Tunis.
September 11: Dozens of armed militants launch an attack on an American diplomatic outpost in the Libyan city Benghazi.
September 11: Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign issues a statement condemning the Obama administration’s response to the global protests:
ROMNEY: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
September 12: Initial reports surface that Ambassador Chris Stevens has been killed, along with other American citizens. The story of how continues to shift throughout day as details emerge.
September 12: In the immediate aftermath of news of Ambassador Stevens’ death, Republicans criticized the Romney campaign’s statement. But the campaign stuck to its attack. When asked about the statement, Romney foreign policy advisor Richard Williamson, replied, “It was accurate.”
September 12: The New York Times reports that “[f]ighters involved in the assault…said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.” The Times continues to stand by its story.
September 12: President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton give remarks on the death of Ambassador Stevens and others. Both pledge justice against the perpetrators of the attacks. In his speech, Obama refers to the attack as an “act of terror”:
OBAMA: No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
September 13: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says during a press briefing and a later press gaggle that the protests around the world were due to reaction to the video. In the gaggle, Carney made clear he didn’t want to speculate in light of the ongoing investigation. His remarks were later taken to mean that the Benghazi attack was based on video.
September 13: President Obama, at a campaign rally in Denver, CO, reiterates the previous day’s statement, referring to the events in Benghazi as an act of terror:
OBAMA: So what I want all of you to know is that we are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.
September 16: United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice goes on all five major Sunday news shows to explain current administration thinking on the Benghazi attack. During her statements, Rice says that the attacks were in part a response to the anti-Islam video that had spurred protests across the region. But, contrary to the popular narrative, Rice did not give a definitive answer as to what exactly took place in Benghazi, for example, in her appearance on ABC’s This Week:
RICE: [O]ur current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
We’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that’s the best information we have at present.
Watch her appearance:
September 19: National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen calls the assault in Benghazi an “opportunistic attack” in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy,” he said.
September 19: CNN reports that Ambassador Stevens remained concerned about security in Libya in the months before his death. CNN’s reporting is later revealed to be based on finding Stevens’ personal journal in the Benghazi site’s wreckage.
September 20: CBS reports that Libyan witnesses maintain that there were no protests immediately prior to the attack on the outpost in Benghazi. The statement contradicts Rice’s statements on the Sunday morning shows that the attack was sparked by the Cairo protest against the anti-Muslim video.
September 21: Clinton appoints an independent panel, led by veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, to investigate potential failures in the State Department’s procedures in Benghazi.
September 21: Citizens in Benghazi protest against the militias based in their city, culminating in the expulsion of the Ansar al-Sharia militia — the group suspected of the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens — from their headquarters.
September 24: President Obama speaks before the U.N. General Assembly on the need to protect freedom of speech. Right-wing commentators later criticize the President for focusing on the video rather than terrorism.
September 26: The Daily Beast reports that some U.S. intelligence officials had “strong indications” that the Benghazi attack was perpetrated by al-Qaeda affiliated groups just 24 hours after the assault — providing fuel to the “cover up” narrative.
September 27: Right-wing blogs continue to point to FBI being unable to access Benghazi site, despite CNN being able to, as a sign of administration deception or incompetence.
September 28: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence takes responsibility for the intelligence community’s claim, repeated by Rice, that the Benghazi attack was launched in response to the protests against the anti-Muslim video in Cairo.
September 28: Rep. Peter King (R-NY) calls for Rice’s resignation over her comments on September 16th:
KING: I believe that this was such a failure of foreign policy messag[ing] and leadership, such a misstatement of facts as was known at the time … for her to go on all of those shows and in effect be our spokesman for the world and be misinforming the American people and our allies and countries around the world, to me, somebody has to pay the price for this.
September 30: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), in an appearance on Fox News, refers to the situation as “Benghazi-gate” and maintains that it is a scandal worse than Watergate.
October 3: Chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee Darrel Issa (R-CA) calls the first witnesses in a forthcoming hearing on the administration’s handling of security in Libya.
October 4: An FBI team reaches the Benghazi site, collecting evidence for about twelve hours.
October 8: Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute. In his remarks, Romney criticizes the Obama administration’s narrative on the events in Benghazi:
ROMNEY: This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long.
No, as the Administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.
October 9: State Department officials say in response to inquiries on whether the attack was prompted by protests against the video, “That is a question that you would have to ask others. That was not our conclusion. I’m not saying that we had a conclusion, but we outlined what happened.”
October 10: In a phone interview, Romney says to Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “I think there was misleading on the part of the administration” with regards to Benghazi.
October 10: During a hearing that House Democrats warned would be highly partisan prior to its beginning, testimony was given by several current and former State Department officials that security in Benghazi was lacking. Career official Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb took the majority of the blame for the decisions made regarding diplomatic security.
October 10: The officials also testified that they denied requests for greater security in Libya, but those requests “were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away.” Former Regional Security Officer for Libya Eric Nordstrom also says, ““Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault.”
October 12: Prior to the vice presidential debate, Obama campaign Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter remarks that Libya has “only become a political issue” thanks to Romney and Paul Ryan. The Romney campaign and other pundits then attacked Cutter, suggesting she claimed Romney and Ryan made the Libya attacks “an issue,” when in fact she said they made the attacks a “political issue.”
October 13: Ambassador Stevens’ father says that it would be “abhorrent” for his son’s death to become a political issue. His statement comes following a request by the mother of a former Marine killed in Benghazi that Romney no longer tell a story involving her son on the campaign trail.
October 14: Romney campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani explicitly says that Romney should be “exploiting” Libya for political gain.
October 15: Secretary of State Clinton says in an interview with CNN that she takes responsibility for the security situation in Benghazi.
CLINTON: I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.
October 16: News reports begin to indicate that while the Benghazi attacks may not have grown out of a protest against an anti-Muslim film Rice said in her Sept. 16 remarks, the assault may have been both an act of terrorism and carried out in response to the video.
October 16: In the second presidential debate, Romney says that President Obama never called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” on Sept. 12. He is corrected by moderator Candy Crowley. Afterwards, Republicans and right-wing pundits say that Obama was not referring to Benghazi specifically on Sept. 12. They also claimed Crowley had walked back her assertion that the President’s statement was correct. But Crowley says she did no such thing.
October 16: During the debate, President Obama responded to a question on Secretary Clinton’s CNN interview by taking responsibility himself for the security in Benghazi:
OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.
The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
October 17: Romney’s main attack on President Obama is that he waited two weeks to say the Benghazi assault was a terror attack. While this claim is indeed false, it appears that Romney himself does not live up this standard. The GOP presidential nominee referred to the incident as terrorism eight days after Obama did.
October 18: Mary Commanday, the mother of slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, tells CBS News that she doesn’t believe blaming the government for her son’s death is appropriate. “I don’t think it’s productive to lay blame on people.”
October 18: Rep. Peter King undercuts two right-wing talking points on Benghazi, both acknowledging that Obama referred to Benghazi as an “act of terror” in his Sept. 12 speech and that he “didn’t expect” Obama to have the full story the day after the attack.
October 18: In a new account, the Wall Street Journal reports that newly gained data cast doubt over the talking points the intelligence community had provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice while she was making her Sept. 16 appearances on several Sunday morning news shows:
Despite their growing uncertainty, intelligence officials didn’t feel they had enough conclusive, new information to revise their assessment. Ms. Rice wasn’t warned of their new doubts before she went on the air the next morning and spoke of the attacks being spurred by demonstrations, intelligence officials acknowledged.
More information casting doubt on the protest element came in on Sunday morning, around the time that Ms. Rice was completing her TV appearances, the officials said. She began taping the shows early Sunday morning. By the time intelligence analysts began to realize “there’s enough here to build a body of evidence that there probably were not protests, those things were already recorded and she [Ms. Rice] was already out there,” a senior intelligence official said.
The Obama administration would be hammered for weeks on Rice’s statements.
October 18: Ahmed Abu Khattab — a leader in the Ansar al-Sharia militia suspected by the Libyan and U.S. governments of taking part in the attack — meets with Reuters and New York Times reporters in Benghazi. During their interview, he indicates that, while he did not take part in the attack, it was in response to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video.
October 19: Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and Peter Doocy both report that the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video may have had something to do with the Benghazi assault. Their statements are the first on Fox News to veer from the narrative attacking the administration’s early statements.
October 20: The LA Times and Washington Post both publish articles critical of a simplified narrative surrounding Benghazi. In the former, intelligence officials are quoted as saying that the Sept. 11 assault was spontaneous, was not ordered by al Qaeda, and was in response to the video. In the latter, columnist David Ignatius confirms that the CIA provided the talking points for the administration and Congress on their initial beliefs regarding causes of the Benghazi attack, including that it stemmed from a protest.
October 21: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in a CNN interview praised Romney’s response to the attack in Benghazi, saying that it closely mirrored Ronald Reagan’s to the Iranian hostage crisis. He is wrong on both counts.
October 22: The Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefing for over a week that the attack in Benghazi grew out of a protest. The lag tracks with earlier reporting indicating a delay in the intelligence community revising earlier assessments of the causes of the attack.
October 22: President Obama once again addresses Libya at the final presidential debate, saying, “with respect to Libya, as I indicated in the last debate, when we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, that we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way.”
October 24 and 25: Reuters reports on a State Department email which said that Ansar Al-Sharia claimed responsibility for the Benghazi assault on its Facebook page. Fox News host Greta Van Susteren says the email proves the Obama administration lied about what they knew after the attack. But Aaron Zelin, an expert on terrorist groups, discredits the theory, “Zelin, who said his RSS feed sends him any new statement from the group, provided CNN with a copy of [his RSS] feed. It shows no Facebook update between September 8 and September 12, when a posting late that afternoon first referenced the attack.”
October 26: Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera begs Fox News to “stop this politicizing” of the Benghazi attack.
October 26: Fox News, citing anonymous sources, says the CIA staff in Benghazi was told to “stand down” and to not provide help to the U.S. diplomatic mission there. The story, which the L.A. Times would later discredit, inspires bizarre right-wing theories.
October 28: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) begins his effort to try to bring down the Obama administration because of Benghazi, saying the administration’s handling of the assault was worse than Watergate because “nobody died in Watergate.” But McCain fails to prove any type of cover-up by the administration.
November 2: The Los Angeles Times debunks the October 26 Fox News report, saying that “there were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.” In fact, the Washington Post reports that CIA agents made it to the site of the attacks in less than thirty minutes, making the President’s order to send forces to the area unnecessary. The New York Times adds that the military “diverted a Predator drone from a reconnaissance mission in Darnah, 90 miles away, in time to oversee the mission’s evacuation.”
November 7: In a lengthy presidential campaign post-mortem piece, the Washington Post reports that Romney admitted that immediately politicizing the Benghazi attacks was a bad move. “We screwed up, guys,” Romney told aides on a conference call that morning, according to multiple people on the call. “This is not good.” However, Romney continued with the attacks because the neoconservative wing of the party would “take his head off.”
November 9: CIA Director David Petraeus steps down after his affair with his biographer Paul Broadwell is revealed.
November 11: Despite the election being over, Republicans step up their attacks and begin their campaign to block U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan’s potential nomination as the next Secretary of State. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) explains on CBS’ Face the Nation, “I cannot imagine promoting anybody associated with Benghazi at this point.”
November 14: McCain joins in the Rice smear campaign, telling Fox and Friends that he will do “everything” in his power to block Rice from becoming Secretary of State. McCain claims Rice is “not very bright,” citing her assessment of the assault on the Sept. 16 Sunday talk shows.
November 14: President Obama says McCain’s criticism of Rice is “outrageous,” adding, “when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”
November 15: Amid rumors propagated by conservatives that David Petraeus left the CIA because of Benghazi, the former CIA director reportedly told CNN that his resignation “was about an extramarital affair and not over classified information or Benghazi.”
November 15: Despite attacking the White House for allegedly concealing information on Benghazi, McCain skipped a close door discussion of the attacks to hold a press conference bashing the administration’s response to what happened in Benghazi.
November 15: ThinkProgress debunks the key claims of McCain’s smear campaign against Susan Rice.
November 16: Former CIA Director David Petraeus testifies before members of Congress. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who sat in on the session, says the CIA approved the infamous “talking points” given to Susan Rice before her appearance on several news shows after the Benghazi attack. This news starts the unravelling of a claim made by McCain and his allies that the White House altered Susan Rice’s Sept. 16 Sunday show talking points to downplay al-Qaeda’s supposed roll in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission. Their theory is that an al-Qaeda attack would undermine Obama’s campaign narrative that his administration put the terror group on the ropes.
November 17: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) shuts down McCain’s call for a special “Watergate-style” committee to investigate the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attack. Reid reminded McCain that “elections are over; it is time to put an end to the partisan politicization of national security.”
November 18: Two of McCain’s closest Senate allies Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) also buck the Arizona Republican on the Watergate-style committee. “I respectfully separate from my two amigos on this one,” Lieberman said, referring to McCain and Lindsey Graham. McCain, Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) have been leading that attacks on Rice and the White House over Benghazi.
November 18: McCain now says that he would not support “any nominee” for Secretary of State.
November 19: Ayotte wants Obama to blame al-Qaeda for the Benghazi attack despite the fact that the investigation into the attack has yet to be concluded.
November 20: Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) says disparagers of Rice are utilizing racial “code words” to make their arguments.
November 20: In another blow to McCain’s claim that the White House altered Rice’s talking points for political reasons, CNN quotes a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence saying that the intelligence community, not the White House, made changes to the talking points given to Susan Rice.
November 20: Now without any ammunition, McCain starts to back down from his previously harsh, conspiratorial charges on the administration and on Susan Rice after the CNN report saying, “we have to read the answers to our questions in the media. There are many other questions that remain unanswered.”
November 21: The Los Angeles Times adds further evidence that the Benghazi talking points were not selectively edited for political reasons, as GOP officials have charged:
“The adjustments were focused on producing talking points that provided the best information available at the time, protected sensitive details and reflected the evolving nature of rapidly incoming intelligence…The CIA drafted the initial talking points, and they were not ‘edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack,’ said a second U.S. official familiar with how the material was edited.”
November 26: Tom Ricks, the veteran military reporter and Pullitzer prize winner, criticizes Fox News for its coverage of the Benghazi attack, saying “I think that Benghazi generally was hyped, by this network especially.” In return, Ricks is cut off the air and told by a staffer that he was “rude.”
November 27: CNN conducts a poll to see if Americans view Benghazi the same way McCain and his allies do. The answer is no:
“Only 40% believe that the inaccurate statements that administration officials initially made about the Benghazi attack were an attempt to deliberately mislead the public.“
November 27: Susan Rice meets with McCain, Graham and Ayotte to discuss what happened in Benghazi. Even with substantial evidence that the intelligence community approved Rice’s talking points, and that the White House did not edit them, the three leave the meeting even more bitter. They pursue a new, more outlandish charge: Rice should have changed the unclassified talking points she receive or just not mentioned them at all.
November 28: Reid and other Senate Democrats become increasingly frustrated with the petty charges against Rice. Reid releases a strong statement, saying the evidence has “made it clear that the allegations against Ambassador Rice are baseless, and that she has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
November 28: In another bizarre attack, Ayotte criticizes Rice for not revealing classified information on Sept. 16 that some intelligence agencies believed al-Qaeada was behind the Benghazi assault. “That’s one of the questions I have,” Ayotte said, “which is if you knew that even though the classified version obviously had references to al Qaeda in it — being involved or individuals with ties to Al Qaeda involved in it — then how could not know that when you go on every Sunday show and not include that fact that it would leave a very different impression to the American people.”
November 28: Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) offers a different take on Rice than his fellow GOP members on the Benghazi issue, saying that “what you don’t want to do…is shoot the messenger.” Isakson added that Rice “is a very smart, very intelligent woman. I know this Ms. Rice, I think she’s done a good job as Ambassador to the U.N.”
November 29: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who also met with Susan Rice, joins in on the campaign against Rice, saying, “I am concerned that Susan Rice’s credibility may have been damaged by the misinformation that was presented that day.” In 2004, however, Collins wasn’t concerned about Condoleezza Rice’s credibility when President Bush nominated her to become Secretary of State, despite the fact that Rice pushed false intelligence that got the U.S. into war with Iraq. Collins supported Condoleezza Rice’s nomination, saying at the time that former President George W. Bush “made a very good choice.”
December 3: McCain’s smear campaign against Susan Rice is now entirely discredited. ThinkProgress reports that Just three days after the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the Arizona Republican said there were “demonstrations” at the U.S. diplomatic mission there and that the attackers “seized this opportunity to attack our consulate.” As this timeline has shown, McCain had been leading a smear campaign against Rice for essentially making the same assessment two days later on the Sept. 16 Sunday talks shows.
December 3: Graham goes on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. For the first time in weeks, neither Van Susteren, nor Graham, mention Susan Rice or Benghazi.
December 4: The Wall Street Journal offers the death knell to the conservative meme that the White House edited the talking points to cover up the incident:
“The officials said the first draft of the talking points had a reference to al Qaeda but it was removed by the Central Intelligence Agency, to protect sources and protect investigations, before the talking points were shared with the White House. No evidence has so far emerged that the White House interfered to tone down the public intelligence assessment, despite the attention the charge has received.”
The report says that intelligence officials “still believe the attack was inspired in part by the earlier protest in Cairo over the video.”
December 6: Fox News White House Correspondent Ed Henry criticizes his network’s Benghazi coverage. “I would not be so deluded to say that some of our shows, some of our commentators, have covered it more than it needed to be covered,” he said.
December 6: During an appearance on Fox News, McCain never discusses Susan Rice and mentioned Benghazi or Libya only in the context of whether the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria.
December 13: Susan Rice withdraws her name from consideration as the next Secretary of State. “I am highly honored to be considered by you for appointment as Secretary of State,” Rice said in a letter to the President. “The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized. I am saddened that we have reached this point even before you have decided whom to nominate.”