A look at why the Benghazi issue keeps coming back

Monday - 5/20/2013, 6:10am EDT

CONNIE CASS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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 were a diplomatic outpost and the visiting U.S. ambassador 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:

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WHY NOW?

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.

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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.

Stevens is the first U.S. ambassador killed by militants since 1979.

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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.