CAIRO -- Lost in the controversy over who requested revisions of CIA-written talking points on September’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans is one key fact: In every iteration of the document, the CIA asserted that a video protest preceded the assaults, and no official reviewing the talking points suggested that that was in error.
Yet interviews with U.S. officials and others indicate that they knew nearly immediately that there had been no protest outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi before attackers stormed it, setting a fire that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department computer expert. A subsequent attack on a CIA annex nearby killed two security contractors, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Why the CIA insisted that there had been a protest tied to a YouTube video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad for several days after the attack, mirroring some news reports, has never been publicly explained.
McClatchy, in a dispatch the day after the assault on the complex, quoted the landlord of the building that housed the U.S. mission as saying there had been no protest before the attack began. “They attacked right away,” Mohammed al Bishari said. A Libyan security guard gave a similar account two days after the attack, describing the area outside the mission as quiet before the attack. “There wasn’t a single ant outside,” he said.
But those reports were hardly the only evidence available before the controversial talking points were completed Sept. 15. The guards who were at the compound said there was no protest before the attack. So did European diplomats and residents who were nearby. State Department officials watched the attack in real time from security cameras mounted around the Benghazi compound. Libya’s president called claims of a protest beforehand “preposterous.”
Still, the claim that a protest preceded the attack remained unchallenged, even as officials deleted from the talking points references to previous CIA warnings about declining security in Libya and to suspicions that a local militant group, Ansar al Sharia, had led the attack.
On Monday, President Barack Obama dismissed the debate of the talking points as a “sideshow.”
"Suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story," Obama said at a White House press conference. "There’s no there there."
Obama said the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used in a series of television appearances Sept. 16 "pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time."
Where the information came from to inform those points has yet to emerge. Libyans interviewed in Benghazi in the days and weeks after the attack on the U.S. mission said they first heard about the video three hours before the attack began.
That conforms with what is generally known about the mood inside the U.S. Benghazi compound on the day of the attack, where nerves were on edge because U.S. officials had spotted a Libyan police officer taking pictures of the compound from the second floor of a house under construction across the street. From that position, the policeman could see the entire layout of the compound.
Consulate officials drafted a protest to Libyan officials, seeking more security, though it is likely that protest was never sent. Later that night, Smith, the computer technician, would type an ominous message to a friend: “assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”