"They knew because they testified in the hearing we had before the election that they were witnessing this in real time and that all of those indications were that this was a very orchestrated, very sophisticated attack on the compound that went on for hours and hours and hours."
-- Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, during interview on MSNBC, Nov. 14
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried with little success to assail President Barack Obama for his handling of the Sept. 11 attack on a diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Republican lawmakers have picked up where Romney left off, insisting that the Obama administration tried early on to mislead the public about how the assault unfolded.
At first, administration officials suggested the offensive grew out of protests over an anti-Islam YouTube video. But the White House and State Department acknowledged on Oct. 9, a day before the House Oversight Committee began hearings on the incident, that no demonstrations had taken place near the diplomatic compound on the day of the attack.
Critics say the Obama administration used the protest idea to play down a well-orchestrated attack near the height of election season. Some have even suggested that the president actually monitored the assault live - much like he did with the killing of Osama bin Laden - and chose not to intervene.
Chaffetz insisted on MSNBC that the administration knew all along that no demonstration took place near the compound. He also said comments by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb during her testimony before the House Oversight Committee proved "they were witnessing this in real time."
Let's take a look at Lamb's testimony and review what happened in Benghazi to determine whether the congressman jumped to any conclusions.
Signs of trouble in Benghazi arose before militants attacked the diplomatic mission on Sept. 11. A car bomb exploded in front of the compound on June 6, and a rocket-propelled grenade hit the British ambassador's motorcade on June 11, prompting Britain to withdraw its diplomatic staff from the city and close its post there.
Stevens sent a cable to the administration at one point describing a series of recent violent incidents as "targeted and discriminate attacks." He also requested more security for the Benghazi mission, but the administration did not provide the support.
Chaffetz said the administration knew there was no protest before the attack "because they testified in the hearing . . . that they were witnessing this in real time and that all of those indications were that this was a very orchestrated, very sophisticated attack."
The congressman was referring to Lamb's Oct. 10 testimony before the House Oversight Committee, in which the State Department official said she could "follow what was happening in almost real-time" after an agent defending the compound alerted the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington. Lamb said she ultimately "monitored multiple open lines with our agents for much of the attack."
Lamb's testimony clearly establishes that militants mounted a well-orchestrated assault on the consulate, but her statements do not address whether a demonstration took place before the offensive.
It is also unclear at this point how fast Lamb's input about the attack rose up the chain of command. Intelligence was surely coming from many directions after the assault, and Lamb is only a mid-level official with the State Department. Nonetheless, she was responsible for the safety and security of the Benghazi facility, so it would be unusual if her information was overlooked for long.
Reports of what happened before the attack conflicted with each other early on, something we pointed out in our timeline of statements about the event.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16 saying that the best available intelligence indicated the attack on the compound began "spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful ⅛anti-Islam video."
But the president of the Libyan National Assembly said right before Rice's interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" that there is "no doubt that this was pre-planned, predetermined."
Multiple news outlets quoted Libya's interior minister saying a protest had preceded the assault on the diplomatic mission, but that official was later removed from his post amid questions about his credibility. Adding further doubts about the protest notion, two Libyans who helped guard the compound told The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that the scene there was utterly calm and quiet before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The State Department acknowledged on Oct. 9 that "nothing unusual outside the gates" had occurred on the evening of the Benghazi assault.
Some Republicans, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have accused the Obama administration of deliberately trying to cover up the truth with its comments about a possible protest before the attack. Other critics of the president have simply spread misinformation.
Noted blogger and climate-change skeptic Larry Bell said unequivocally in a Forbes editorial that the president and key members of his administration watched live video of the Benghazi attacks and chose not to intervene. The opening to Bell's article reads as follows:
"Just one hour after the seven-hour-long terrorist attacks upon the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began, our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team gathered together in the Oval Office listening to phone calls from American defenders desperately under siege and watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site. Yet they sent no military aid that might have intervened in time to save lives."
Similarly, Fox News personality Sean Hannity questioned what the president was doing during the night of the attacks, noting incorrectly that the State Department "watched in real-time." Remember, Lamb only had an audio connection, so she didn't actually see anything from the incident live.
Breitbart.com also ran a short piece with the title "Report: Obama watched Benghazi attack from 'Situation Room.'"
We should note that video of the assault came in two forms: Feeds from a pair of drones that the Defense Department dispatched to the scene; and recorded surveillance footage from closed-circuit cameras at the compound itself. The latter footage was unavailable to U.S. investigators until Libyan officials handed it over weeks after the attack.
It is unclear whether the president monitored the attacks live via drone, but he would not have seen what happened before the attack anyway, as the drones were dispatched well after the offensive started.
Whether or not there was a protest, there is even still dispute about the possible role of the anti-Islam film in the attack. Although Chaffetz asserted there is "no indication" that the video played any role, The New York Times reported in mid-October that the attack was in retaliation for the video, even though there was no evidence of a protest. The newspaper reported that the fighters during the battle spoke emotionally about their anger at the film.
In an interview, Chaffetz explained his remarks on MSNBC: "I was simply pointing out we're hearing different things from the White House and the State Department, and so there needs to be an investigation."
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Chaffetz's MSNBC comments suggest he has a slam-dunk case proving a cover-up against the Obama administration. What he really has are a lot of questions for the president, who promised during his first post-election news conference to be forthcoming with information about the Benghazi attack. We'll see how well he sticks to that pledge.
The Benghazi hearings and investigations could potentially prove Chaffetz right, but the congressman has no conclusive evidence that the Obama administration misled the public or knew right away that the assault had little or nothing to do with protests over an anti-Islam video. His suggestion that he knows for sure what the administration knew about the Sept. 11 attack creates a false, misleading impression.
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Read The Fact Checker: the Truth Behind the Rhetoric, at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker
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