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Here’s what you should know about the deadly attack in Benghazi

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate and CIA compound in Benghazi, Libya, has sparked a firestorm of recrimination and accusation, touching on policy and politics.

    As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before a congressional committee about the attacks tomorrow, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner catches us up on the facts of the case.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    This fiery scene at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, took place three years ago, but it sparked a political war of words that's still being fought.

    Thirteen months after the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Benghazi was lawless and awash with guns. The U.S. mission was protected by one local militia and unarmed contractor guards. On the anniversary of 9/11, around 9:40 p.m., heavily armed men stormed the compound, opening fire and torching some of its buildings.

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before a House committee on the events surrounding the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, scheduled for 10 a.m. EDT Thursday, Oct. 22. Watch a live stream above.

    Hours later, a CIA annex less than a mile away came under mortar attack. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died in the main compound, along with Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, apparently of smoke inhalation. Two contractors, ex-Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died at the annex.

    Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said U.S. commanders had no intelligence that an attack was coming on the Benghazi mission, and U.S. forces were too far away to help when it did. LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: Frankly, without an adequate warning, there wasn't enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    In the aftermath, the military did deploy elite teams of U.S. Marines from Rota, Spain, one to Benghazi to evacuate personnel, the other to fortify the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

    The Benghazi assault followed anti-U.S. protests that day in a half-dozen Islamic countries. In Cairo, a mob breached the walls of the heavily-fortified U.S. Embassy, tearing down the U.S. flag. No Americans were harmed.

    All those protests were against an American citizen's online movie mocking the Prophet Mohammed. Five days later, on the Sunday talk shows, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice pointed to a linkage.

  • SUSAN RICE, National Security Adviser:

    What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo. MARGARET WARNER: But Republicans charged the White House knew almost immediately Benghazi was a terror attack, and concealed it to protect President Obama's reelection campaign.

    The administration insisted Ambassador Rice was speaking from the best information available at the time. Four months later, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took on Senate Republicans at a hearing.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:

    The fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does this make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The incident launched parallel investigations by the FBI, the State Department, and Congress to do just that. One was by an independent accountability review board appointed by Secretary Clinton and headed by retired former Ambassador Thomas Pickering.

    That December, it issued a stinging report on what happened that night. And it called the consulate's security posture inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack.

    THOMAS PICKERING, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: It was deficient in security supplies. It was probably deficient in the security manning of the post.

    There were ongoing security problems in Benghazi, which we felt should have alerted the department to deal with those issues. Many of the questions presented to the department were answered in the negative, when they probably should have been positively responded to.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And are you saying there were requests for additional security there and they were denied?

  • THOMAS PICKERING:

    There was an ongoing request for additional security, and a number of them were not responded to properly and positively, yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The Pickering review cited — quote — "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at the State Department, a consulate that was severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment, and a short-term staff rotation that resulted in diminished institutional knowledge, continuity and mission capacity."

    Pickering said the review board closely examined whether the U.S. military could have scrambled forces elsewhere to the attack site.

  • THOMAS PICKERING:

    And it was very clear to us that the nearest assistance was called upon right away, but the requirement to mobilize aircraft and move those Marines in Spain wasn't sufficient to get it there in time.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Three State Department officials resigned immediately after that report. The report didn't fault Secretary Clinton.

  • THOMAS PICKERING:

    Did you try to follow the chain of command, as it were, the chain of responsibility all the way to the top? Absolutely.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, did it ever go to the secretary of state?

  • THOMAS PICKERING:

    I had no indication that any of these decisions went to the secretary of state.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And do these decisions usually go to the secretary of state?

  • THOMAS PICKERING:

    No, they wouldn't normally go to the secretary of state. These were decisions about should we provide X-kind of money to build a wall?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Meanwhile, the man charged as a ringleader of the Benghazi attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, faces a federal trial in Washington after being captured by U.S. special forces last year.

    I'm Margaret Warner for the PBS NewsHour in Washington.

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