We still get questions about whether the Obama administration misled the public when it initially claimed that the Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, began “spontaneously” in response to an anti-Muslim video on the internet.
We refer readers to our article “Benghazi Timeline,” which was originally published Oct. 26, 2012, but it has been updated numerous times as an independent report and multiple congressional reports have been issued — most recently on June 28 by the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
We stand by what we wrote in that article: that the administration was quick to blame the video, which did trigger protests in Egypt and elsewhere, and slow to acknowledge the incident was a terrorist attack. Republicans say this was done by administration officials to help get Obama reelected, while Democrats — including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have blamed the initial response on the “fog of war.” We leave that up to you to decide.
It is Clinton who is now running for president, and the focus has been on her statements in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attacks — rather than on Obama, who won his reelection. As part of the House Benghazi committee report, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo issued an addendum with their views. In it, they blame Clinton for being among those who misled the public “rather than tell the American people the truth and increase the risk of losing an election.”
In the minority report released June 27, the Democrats on the House Select Committee on Benghazi said that “it remains unclear to this day precisely what motivated all of the individuals in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.” The report quoted former CIA Director David Petraeus as saying, “I’m still not absolutely certain what absolutely took place … and to be candid with you, I am not sure that the amount of scrutiny spent on this has been in the least bit worth it.”
Now that the last of the Benghazi reports have been issued, we look at some key public and private statements made by Clinton and others in her department following the attacks, which resulted in the loss of four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
Sept. 11, 2012: Two Responses
In her first public statement, the secretary of state referred to the video, but made no mention of terrorists or a terrorist attack. An hour later, she sent an email to her daughter, Chelsea, that made no reference to the video, and blamed “an al Qaeda-like group.” (The State Department’s Operations Center earlier that night sent an email to the White House, Pentagon, FBI and other government agencies that said Ansar al-Sharia has claimed credit for the attack on its Facebook and Twitter accounts — a fact that was not made public until Reuters reported it on Oct. 24, 2012.)
About 10:00 p.m.: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issues a statement confirming that one State official was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Her statement, which MSNBC posted at 10:32 p.m., made reference to the anti-Muslim video.
Clinton: Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.
11:12 p.m.: Clinton sends an email to her daughter, Chelsea, that reads: “Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an al Qaeda-like group: The Ambassador, whom I handpicked and a young communications officer on temporary duty w a wife and two young children. Very hard day and I fear more of the same tomorrow.” (The email was discovered in 2015 by the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It is written to “Diane Reynolds,” which was Chelsea Clinton’s alias.)
Clarification, July 1, 2016: We updated this article to clarify Clinton’s first public statement on the Benghazi attacks. We originally wrote, “In her first public statement, the secretary of state referred to the attack as being in “response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” As the entry for that date makes clear, she said, “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.”
Sept. 12, 2012: ‘Nothing to Do with the Film’
Clinton issued a statement, which made no mention of the anti-Muslim video, and she delivered a speech, which did. Neither referred to a terrorist attack.
Privately, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff wrote an email that said “we are not saying that the violence in Libya erupted ‘over inflammatory videos,’” and Clinton told the Egyptian prime minister that the video had nothing to do with the Benghazi attacks.
Sept. 12: Clinton issues a statement confirming that four U.S. officials, not one, had been killed. She calls the incident a “violent attack.”
Clinton: All the Americans we lost in yesterday’s attacks made the ultimate sacrifice. We condemn this vicious and violent attack that took their lives, which they had committed to helping the Libyan people reach for a better future.
Sept. 12: Clinton delivers a speech at the State Department to condemn the attack in Benghazi and to praise the victims as “heroes.” She again makes reference to the anti-Muslim video in similar language.
Clinton: Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear — there is no justification for this, none.
Sept. 12: Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, sends an email prior to Obama’s Rose Garden address to Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor for strategic communications at the White House, and others that says, “There was not really much violence in Egypt. And we are not saying that the violence in Libya erupted ‘over inflammatory videos.’”
Sept. 12, 3:04 p.m.: Clinton calls then Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and tells him, “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest.” An account of that call was contained in an email written by State Department Public Affairs Officer Lawrence Randolph. The email was released by the House Benghazi committee.
Sept. 13, 2012: Libyan Ambassador Apologizes for ‘Terrorist Attack’
Clinton referred to the video in separate remarks while welcoming leaders of Libya and Morocco, while CNN quoted an unnamed State Department official who described the assault as a “clearly planned military-type attack.”
Sept. 13: Clinton meets with Ali Suleiman Aujali — the Libyan ambassador to the U.S. — at a State Department event to mark the end of Ramadan. Ambassador Aujali apologizes to Clinton for what he called “this terrorist attack which took place against the American consulate in Libya.” Clinton, in her remarks, does not refer to it as a terrorist attack. She condemns the anti-Muslim video, but adds that there is “never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Clinton: Religious freedom and religious tolerance are essential to the stability of any nation, any people. Hatred and violence in the name of religion only poison the well. All people of faith and good will know that the actions of a small and savage group in Benghazi do not honor religion or God in any way. Nor do they speak for the more than 1 billion Muslims around the world, many of whom have shown an outpouring of support during this time.
Unfortunately, however, over the last 24 hours, we have also seen violence spread elsewhere. Some seek to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory, despicable material posted on the Internet. As I said earlier today, the United States rejects both the content and the message of that video. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. At our meeting earlier today, my colleague, the foreign minister of Morocco, said that all prophets should be respected because they are all symbols of our humanity, for all humanity.
But both of us were crystal clear in this paramount message: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. And we look to leaders around the world to stand up and speak out against violence, and to take steps to protect diplomatic missions from attack.
Sept. 13: At a daily press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is asked if the Benghazi attack was “purely spontaneous or was premeditated by militants.” She declines to say, reiterating that the administration did not want to “jump to conclusions.”
Nuland: Well, as we said yesterday when we were on background, we are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, whether it was premeditated, whether they had any external contacts, whether there was any link, until we have a chance to investigate along with the Libyans. So I know that’s going to be frustrating for you, but we really want to make sure that we do this right and we don’t jump to conclusions.
That said, obviously, there are plenty of people around the region citing this disgusting video as something that has been motivating. As the Secretary said this morning, while we as Americans, of course, respect free speech, respect free expression, there’s never an excuse for it to become violent.
Sept. 13: Clinton meets with Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani. She condemns what she calls the “disgusting and reprehensible” anti-Muslim video and the violence that it triggered. She says, “Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents. As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.”
Sept. 13: CNN reports that unnamed “State Department officials” say the incident in Benghazi was a “clearly planned military-type attack” unrelated to the anti-Muslim movie.
CNN: “It was not an innocent mob,” one senior official said. “The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective but this was a clearly planned military-type attack.”
Sept. 14, 2012: Speaking at Andrews Air Force Base
On the same day that White House Press Secretary Carney denied reports that the assault on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi was a preplanned attack, Clinton spoke at Andrews Air Force Base to accept remains of those killed. She did not call the assault a terrorist attack, although she quoted the president of the Palestinian Authority who called it an “an act of ugly terror.”
Sept. 14: A State Department public information official writes in an email: “[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that the series of events in Benghazi was much more terrorist attack than a protest which escalated into violence. It is our opinion that in our messaging, we want to distinguish, not conflate, the events in other countries with this well-planned attack by militant extremists.” (The email was released Oct. 31, 2015, by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and was contained in the Benghazi committee report issued June 28, 2016. The name of the person who sent the email and the person or persons who received the email were redacted. However, the person who wrote the email is identified in the committee report as a “public information officer from the Embassy in Tripoli,” and the email says it reflects “our view at Embassy Tripoli.” It also says, “I have discussed this with [name redacted] and he shares PAS’s view.” PAS stands for Public Affairs Section.)
Sept. 14: Clinton speaks at Andrews Air Force Base at a ceremony to receive the remains of those killed in Benghazi. She remarks that she received a letter from the president of the Palestinian Authority praising Stevens and “deploring — and I quote — ‘an act of ugly terror.'” She, however, did not call it an act of terror or a terrorist attack and neither did the president.
Clinton did mention the anti-Muslim video. “This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country,” she said. “We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
Sept. 14: At a State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Nuland says the department will no longer answer any questions about the Benghazi attack. “It is now something that you need to talk to the FBI about, not to us about, because it’s their investigation.”
Sept. 16-17, 2012: The Talking Points
Sept. 16: Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tells CBS News’ Bob Schieffer: “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.” She says it began “spontaneously … as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo,” and “extremist elements” joined in the protest.
Rice’s talking points were written by the CIA, but were extensively revised, largely at the request of the State Department. The original CIA talking points said, “We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.” And they said that “[i]nitial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia.” References to al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia were removed. However, all of the drafts say the attack began “spontaneously” in response to the Cairo protest.
Sept. 17: Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is asked about Rice’s comments on “Face the Nation” and four other Sunday talk shows. Nuland says, “The comments that Ambassador Rice made accurately reflect our government’s initial assessment.” Nuland uses the phrase “initial assessment” three times when discussing Rice’s comments.
Sept. 18, 2012: Planned for Months?
On the same day that Obama said the Benghazi attackers used the video “as an excuse,” Clinton was asked whether the attack was planned.
Sept. 18: After meeting with Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Patricia Espinosa, Clinton speaks with reporters and is asked if the Libyan president is “wrong” that “this attack was planned for months.” Clinton says, “The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has said we had no actionable intelligence that an attack on our post in Benghazi was planned or imminent.” She does not say if the Libyan president is right or wrong.
Sept. 21, 2012: Clinton Calls It a ‘Terrorist Attack’
Clinton referred to the Benghazi attacks as a “terrorist attack” on Sept. 21, 2012 — two days after Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, did so at a congressional hearing.
Sept. 21: Clinton, speaking to reporters before a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, calls it a “terrorist attack” for the first time. She says, “Yesterday afternoon when I briefed the Congress, I made it clear that keeping our people everywhere in the world safe is our top priority. What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.”
Oct. 15, 2012: Clinton Blames ‘Fog of War’
Oct. 15: Clinton, in an interview on CNN, blames the “fog of war” when asked why the administration initially claimed the attack began with the anti-Muslim video, even though the State Department never reached that conclusion. “In the wake of an attack like this in the fog of war, there’s always going to be confusion, and I think it is absolutely fair to say that everyone had the same intelligence,” Clinton says. “Everyone who spoke tried to give the information they had. As time has gone on, the information has changed, we’ve gotten more detail, but that’s not surprising. That always happens.”
Correction, Aug. 14, 2018: Clinton mentioned the anti-Muslim video when she spoke at Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 14, 2012. As a reader correctly pointed out, we mistakenly said that she did not. We’ve corrected our error and thank the reader for bringing this to our attention.