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 CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The events of that night have been the subject of eight investigations that produced tens of thousands of pages and led to changes in U.S. diplomatic security worldwide. Even so, more digging lies ahead. So does partisan combat. In May, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted along party lines to create a special committee to investigate some more. 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 potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who was U.S. secretary of state at the time of the attack.

The Situation

The House panel plans 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 been reviewed by Congress, news organizations and the State Department’s independent Accountability Review Board, which faulted mid-level officials for inadequate security measures. Democrats say their main committee role will be to correct misinformation from the majority. Clinton devoted a chapter of a new memoir, “Hard Choices,” to the attack, taking responsibility for the deaths but distancing herself from security decisions. Meanwhile, violence in Benghazi and the rest of the country has surged with Libya’s weak central government unable to control rival militias and Islamist extremists. The chaos slowed the FBI’s pursuit of suspects in the attacks, but in June agents seized a Libyan militant thought to have played a central role.

The Background

In August 2011, Muammar Qaddafi was driven from power with the help of NATO air strikes. 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, according to the majority 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. Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee dissented from the majority’s findings concerning the talking points, concluding 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.” The American public is likewise divided: Polls show most Democrats think the Congressional Republicans are posturing, while most Republicans think they are pursuing legitimate questions. Independents split down the middle. In the meantime, Congress has paid scant attention to events in Libya, a nation headed toward anarchy as radical Islamists and other factions battle for dominance and push the country toward a potential breakup.

The Reference Shelf

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

First Published June 17 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Terry Atlas in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at