Video footage from the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, taken the night of the Sept. 11 anniversary attacks, shows an organized group of armed men attacking the compound, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who have seen the footage and are involved in the ongoing investigation. The footage, which was recovered from the site last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offers some of the most tangible evidence yet that a military-style assault took place, according to these officials.
The Obama administration has been studying the videos, taken from closed-circuit cameras throughout the Benghazi consulate’s four-building compound, for clues about who was responsible for the attack and how it played out. The two officials tell The Daily Beast that analysts are hoping to decipher the faces of the attackers and match them up with known jihadists.
The videos could also play into an expanding investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that is looking at whether security steps could have been taken that would have saved the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed that day. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is one of the Republicans leading the House investigation, says he hasn’t been given the footage.
In addition to the footage from the consulate cameras, the U.S. government is also poring over video taken from an overhead U.S. surveillance drone that arrived for the final hour of the night battle at the consulate compound and nearby annex.
Video from the compound’s cameras debunk the initial line from the Obama administration that there was a protest in front of the consulate on the night of the attacks, according to one of the U.S. intelligence officials who has seen the footage, and a senior Obama administration official familiar with what they show.
The videos were filmed from multiple closed-circuit cameras throughout the compound, and are at times grainy and hard to decipher. There are also some gaps. There is no footage, for example, of Ambassador Chris Stevens going into the safe room where he eventually died from smoke inhalation. The footage at the gate of the compound is taken from an angle that filmed the attackers from the side, so the people in the crowd can mostly be seen in profile.
The Daily Beast first reported that the intelligence behind the initial public assessment that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film was based in part on a single intercept between one of the attackers and a middle manager in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s North African affiliate. In the call, the alleged attacker said the locals went forward with the attack only after watching the riots that same day at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. But that intercept was one of many that suggested an al Qaeda link to the attack, none of which were mentioned in the initial eight days.
In addition to the intercept, the Central Intelligence Agency based its first assessment on open press reports and statements from Libyan politicians with jihadist sympathies. A U.S. intelligence official said there was also information from one of the Libyan nationals saying there was a protest that evening.
Analysts are hoping to decipher the faces of the attackers and match them up with known databases of jihadists.
At the same time, there was evidence that countered this assessment. An initial investigation by congressional Republicans alleged that the families of local Libyans serving for a contractor to provide security at the consulate were urged in the days before the attack to have the guards not show up to work on Sept. 11. U.S. intelligence officers also knew of four suspects within 24 hours of the attack that had links to Ansar al-Sharia, a local jihadist organization with some ties to al Qaeda’s regional affiliate for north Africa.
The video footage also supports the accounts of four diplomatic-security officers who were at the Benghazi compound and who initially responded to the attack. On Sept. 17, these officers told State Department investigators in formal briefings that there was no spontaneous protest the night of the attack, U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. This information was what led the State Department to conclude there was no protest at the consulate on the day of the attacks, according to these officials.
Nonetheless, White House spokesman Jay Carney continued to say until Sept. 20 that the Benghazi assault resulted from a protest over the Internet film.