The Libyan City That's a U.S. Partisan Flashpoint


On Sept. 11, 2012, four Americans were killed in attacks on a diplomatic compound and a CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The events of that night have been the subject of eight investigations, with six completed so far, that have produced tens of thousands of pages and led to changes in U.S. diplomatic security worldwide. Even so, more digging and partisan combat lies ahead. In May 2014, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted along party lines to create a special committee to investigate further. Republicans say there was an effort by the White House to protect President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign by falsely claiming that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video rather than a planned act of terrorism. Democrats say the committee’s mission is to exploit a tragedy to discredit Obama, boost Republican fundraising and undermine Hillary Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who was U.S. secretary of state at the time of the attack.

The Situation

A report capping a two-year investigation by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee was released in November 2014. It repudiated “the swirl of rumors and unsupported allegations” over the Benghazi assault, and found there was never a “stand-down” order blocking rescue efforts, though other Republicans questioned the report’s accuracy. The newest investigation, by the House Benghazi select committee, held its first hearing in September 2014. Republicans plan to look into why Ambassador Chris Stevens was in Benghazi despite known dangers from militant groups. Republican leaders say they also want to know why the U.S. military didn’t rescue Stevens and the others. These issues have already been reviewed by Congress, news organizations and the State Department’s independent Accountability Review Board, which blamed mid-level officials for inadequate security measures. Nonetheless, the committee is pressing ahead. It issued subpoenas in March for more Clinton e-mails after it was reported that she used a personal e-mail account while she was secretary of state; the State Department released the first 296 of these e-mails on May 22. Clinton is testifing once again on Oct. 22.

The Background

In August 2011, Muammar Qaddafi was driven from power with the help of NATO airstrikes. In June 2012, Stevens, who had been in Benghazi as the U.S. liaison to the rebels during the uprising, took up his post as ambassador in the capital, Tripoli. He traveled to Benghazi in September to meet with militia leaders to discuss security — and died of smoke inhalation in the safe room of the U.S. diplomatic compound. In a series of television interviews on Sept. 16, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the “best information” available showed that the attack began as a “spontaneous reaction” to the anti-Muslim video, as had been the case earlier that day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. In fact, intelligence agencies had preliminary evidence that individuals linked to al-Qaeda were involved, but wanted that withheld from the talking points prepared for Rice to protect classified sources and to avoid compromising any FBI investigation into the attack on Americans, according to the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a conclusion disputed by the panel’s Republicans. A definitive account of what happened and why remains elusive. Investigations by Congress and news organizations suggest that the attacks were the work of Islamist militias including Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group inspired by al-Qaeda, and involved a combination of planning and spontaneous anger over the video.

Source: Senate Intelligence Committee
Source: Senate Intelligence Committee

The Argument

Initially, Congress united in bipartisan demands for accountability and changes to safeguard diplomatic missions. That quickly gave way to partisan skirmishing, as “Benghazi” evolved into Republican political shorthand for suspected duplicity by the administration. In 2014, dissenting Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that officials sought to “frame the story” in a way that wouldn’t contradict the president’s campaign claim that al-Qaeda “had been decimated and was on the run.” Obama has accused the Republicans of pushing “phony scandals.” Clinton campaign staffers saw evidence of this in comments made by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in September 2015 linking her declining poll numbers to the investigation. The American public is likewise divided: Polls have shown most Democrats disapprove of the Congressional hearings on Benghazi while Republicans are for them. In the meantime, Congress has paid scant attention to events in Libya, a nation that appears to be headed toward anarchy.

The Reference Shelf

  • The U.S. House Intelligence Committee report on the attacks.
  • The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of the attacks.
  • The U.S. House Armed Services Committee report on Benghazi.
  • The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report on Benghazi, “Flashing Red.”
  • New York Times article, “A Deadly Mix in Benghazi,” based on several months of investigation.

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First Published June 17, 2014

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at

Anne Cronin at