Consulate Attack

Congress Receives Confusing Benghazi Briefing From Administration

After a month of collecting data and film from Benghazi, the CIA, State Department, and FBI can’t explain what happened. By Eli Lake.

Charles Ommanney / Getty Images

After weeks of requests and political back and forth, the Obama administration on Thursday shared with Congress video evidence, debriefings, and photographs collected from the evening of the Sept. 11 assault on the diplomatic mission and CIA base at Benghazi, Libya.

On Thursday the director of the CIA, the director of National Intelligence, as well as senior military, State Department, and FBI officials were in Congress all day for two separate hearings before the House and Senate intelligence committees. The prescheduled hearings capped off a week of high-level, classified briefings to eight congressional committees on the details of the government’s response to the attack and when key intelligence and assessments about the attack that night came in.

The briefings present a single, government-wide account of the evening of 9/11 in Benghazi. Until Thursday, Congress had received separate accounts of the attack from the State Department, CIA, and the military.

The hearings revolved around a multimedia presentation prepared by the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) that included photos and video collated from overhead drone footage of Libya, as well as closed-circuit camera film from the diplomatic mission and the CIA base in Benghazi.

The video that was shown, according to two U.S. officials, was confusing. “You had people there doing a mix of things with a mix of motivations,” one U.S. intelligence official said. The official stressed that neither the video alone nor the briefing proved that the initial attack was well-organized, despite subsequent evidence to support that theory, including testimony from diplomatic security officers that the attackers cordoned off the area during the siege of the diplomatic mission. “This involved many, many people, and it’s a mix of intent, motivation, a mix of skill, armament,” the official said.

The drone footage was no clearer. Because the unarmed predator drone was used to scout out locations for the CIA team executing the rescue of the personnel, the overhead footage did not provide consistent footage of the attack, one congressional staff member said.

While the video was at times confusing, the briefing corroborated earlier administration accounts of attempts to provide military back-up on the evening of the attack. The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that CIA director Mike Morell testified that his agency did not request lethal military assistance like special operations teams, platoons of specialized Marines, or armed predator drones.

The overall presentation, prepared by NCTC, was more than a month in the making, according to administration officials. Next up: the almost certain to be dramatic testimony of the recently disgraced and now former CIA director David Petraeus. He is scheduled to appear Friday before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.