WASHINGTON - The night of smoke, chaos, gunfire and grenades that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, is well-documented. Eight months later, it is the decisions made back in Washington that remain murky and in perpetual dispute.
Why was a diplomatic outpost left so poorly protected? Should the Pentagon have rushed jets or special forces to the rescue when the assault began? Did President Barack Obama's administration obscure the true nature of the terrorist attack to help him get re-elected?
Congressional Republicans are poking for evidence of incompetence and cover-up in the ashes of the Sept. 11 anniversary attack. Obama dismisses their probes as a politically driven "sideshow."
The release this past week of 100 pages of government emails and notes is the latest fodder, as numerous Benghazi investigations continue.
A look at the issue:
Republicans and Democrats began condemning each other's response to Benghazi within hours of the first shots fired. The issue has flared and dimmed ever since, revived by new testimony, reports or documents like the newly released emails.
Republican lawmakers say they won't stop until they get their questions answered.
Democrats accuse the GOP of flogging the issue for partisan gain.
The focus on Benghazi and other controversies makes it harder for Obama to press his second-term agenda. Emphasizing the State Department's failings during her tenure could be especially damaging to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the early favorite among Democrats who might seek the presidency in 2016.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible Republican presidential candidate, already is arguing that the attack "precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office."
The controversy also helps Republicans raise money and fire up their conservative base heading into next year's congressional elections.
SEPT. 11, 2012
The night of the attack, as described by the State Department's review board and other accounts:
Seven Americans are at State's temporary residential compound in Benghazi that night: U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, visiting from the embassy in Tripoli; computer specialist Sean Smith; and five diplomatic security officers. They are a minority among U.S. personnel in Benghazi; most work for the CIA, which operates a secret "annex" about a mile away.
Egyptian demonstrators had scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo hours earlier to protest an American amateur filmmaker's video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. But there were no demonstrations that day in Benghazi. The attack begins suddenly around 9:40 p.m. - gunfire, explosions, sounds of chanting and then dozens of armed men swarming through the compound's main entrance. Libyans hired to guard the compound flee.
A security officer hustles Stevens and Smith into a fortified "safe room." It fills with blinding smoke when the attackers set the building on fire with diesel fuel, and the two men become separated from the security officer.
A CIA team from the annex arrives about 25 minutes into the attack and helps search for the two diplomats inside the smoke-filled room, while gunfire continues outside. Only Smith's body is found. Eventually the U.S. personnel escape in armored vehicles, plowing through gunfire and grenade blasts to the CIA annex across town. Rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire target the annex intermittently for an hour after midnight.
A team of six security officials summoned from Tripoli arrives around 5 a.m. Soon after, another assault on the annex begins. A mortar blast kills CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. About an hour later, a Libyan military unit arrives to help evacuate the U.S. personnel.
After the Americans fled the diplomatic compound, Benghazi civilians found Ambassador Stevens in the wreckage and drove him to a hospital, but he couldn't be saved. Like Smith, he died of smoke inhalation.
POLITICAL FROM THE FIRST
The calamity in Benghazi was the kind of autumn surprise that can rock a presidential race.
The night of Sept. 11, before word of Stevens' death was out, Republican nominee Mitt Romney issued a hurried statement about violence in Egypt and Libya, criticizing the State Department as too sympathetic to Muslim protesters. Critics, even some in his own party, faulted Romney for politicizing a crisis before the facts were in.
A month later in a combative presidential debate, Romney took another tack. He jumped on Obama for being too slow to acknowledge that terrorism was committed on his watch.
"It took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror," Romney insisted.
"Get the transcript," Obama snapped back, referring to his remarks the day after the assault.
In that Rose Garden appearance and similar words the next day, Obama had said that "acts of terror" would not shake U.S. resolve. He also condemned the violent protests that were sweeping through Muslim nations, sparked by anger over the Muhammad video.
In interviews over the
next two weeks, Obama blamed the attack on extremists but steered clear of using any form of the word "terror." Other administration officials did the same and continued to conflate the Benghazi attack with the protests elsewhere.
Finally, at a Sept. 20 news briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was "self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
THE TALKING POINTS
The question of the moment: Were the "talking points" drawn up within days of the attack deliberately misleading?
The document, outlining the government's public message, was sent to members of Congress and to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who made the round of Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack.
Republicans accuse Rice of deceiving the American people. They say that, working from the talking points, she passed off an attack by heavily armed terrorists possibly linked to al-Qaida as something less damaging to Obama's terror-fighting credentials.
Rice described the attack as a "horrific incident where some mob was hijacked, ultimately, by a handful of extremists."
The White House says Rice reflected the best information available while facts were still being gathered. Republican critics say the administration should have known by then that there was no mob of protesters and the attack was a premeditated act of terrorism.
Two months after her TV interviews, the controversy ended Rice's chance of following Clinton as secretary of state.
Those talking points from September are in the news now because of new revelations about how they were crafted.
Republicans demanded to see emails exchanged by administration officials who revised and edited the talking points. On Wednesday, the White House publicly released 100 pages of emails and notes, saying congressional Republicans had misrepresented what they say.
Most of the email back-and-forth is between the State Department and the CIA, the entities whose facilities were attacked in Benghazi. White House and FBI officials were also in the discussions.
From the first draft, the CIA described the attack in Benghazi as a spontaneous outgrowth of the movie protests that began in Egypt - which indicates that was the theory in Washington then. However, the No. 2 diplomatic official in Libya at the time says he knew immediately it wasn't true and was demoted after he questioned the version of events Rice recited on TV.
One edit especially has been criticized as political: Victoria Nuland, then State's spokeswoman, sought removal of a reference to a CIA warning about the potential for anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and jihadists trying to break into that embassy. Nuland wrote that "could be abused" by lawmakers to criticize her department for failing to take heed.
Also deleted were references to the CIA's past warnings about dangerous extremists linked to al-Qaida in Benghazi.
After many deletions, the meat of the talking points read: "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
The month after Obama was re-elected, an independent review board issued its harsh verdict.
Senior officials in Washington had failed to protect the Benghazi mission, even after diplomats in Libya asked for more security, said the panel appointed by the State Department.
Since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, eastern Libya has been plagued by violence and awash with heavily armed militias. The U.S. compound as well as British diplomats and the Red Cross had been targeted by explosives in smaller attacks several times over the spring and summer.
The danger was obvious.
And yet security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the Accountability Review Board concluded.
Four State Department officials were reassigned or resigned as a result.
"We clearly fell down on the job with regard to Benghazi," Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told lawmakers.
Republicans put the focus on Clinton's responsibility. In combative congressional hearings in January, the outgoing secretary of state said the cables from Benghazi seeking help never reached her.
"I did not see these requests. They did not come to me," she said. "I did not approve them. I did not deny them."
Obama called the poor security "a huge problem" and said changes would be made to protect risky posts.
Democrats tried to shift some blame to congressional Republicans, complaining that they cut $300 million from the Obama administration's budget request of $2.6 billion for diplomatic and embassy security in 2012.
WHERE WAS THE CAVALRY?
Could the military have done more to help on Sept. 11? A former top diplomat thinks so.
Gregory Hicks, who
was Stevens' No. 2 and monitoring the crisis from Tripoli that night, suggests that sending fighter jets or even a cargo plane overhead might have scared off the insurgents with a show of force. That might have saved the lives of the two CIA contractors by preventing the final assault on the CIA annex, which came about eight hours after the first attack on the diplomatic mission, Hicks told a House committee.
Hicks also said four members of a special forces team in Tripoli wanted to fly on a Libyan plane to Benghazi but were told to stand down. Pentagon officials said the evacuation was already beginning by then and those forces would have arrived too late.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate there wasn't enough information about what was happening on the ground to send in aircraft. For example, for several hours officials didn't know what had happened to the ambassador.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the same point. "You can't just willy-nilly send F-16s there and blow the hell out of a place without knowing what's taking place," Panetta told senators.
State's review board concluded the military did what it could. An unarmed Predator drone flew over the diplomatic post beginning shortly after 11 p.m. to gather information. Two military personnel were with the team from Tripoli that arrived at the CIA annex in the morning. A C-17 from Germany carried the evacuated Americans out of Tripoli. Special operations forces and other personnel who were deployed from Europe and the United States in response to the crisis didn't reach Libya in time to help.
"The interagency response was timely and appropriate," according to the review board, "but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."
The FBI is still investigating who carried out the attack, and Attorney General Eric Holder says there has been "very, very substantial progress."
Republicans on five House committees are pursuing inquiries. Many GOP lawmakers are pushing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to appoint a special select committee to investigate.
The leaders of the review board, veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, have offered to testify publicly about their findings and to answer critics who say the probe was incomplete. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight committee, has issued a subpoena to compel Pickering to testify in closed session first.
And congressional Republicans say they will keep pressing for more documents, such as details of military orders during the attack.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.