Middle East

Inside the State Department During the Benghazi Attacks

The deaths of four Americans in Libya this week tested the resolve of Hillary Clinton and her employees. Daniel Klaidman on what happened inside the State Department as the events unfolded.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

Before the thick, black smoke in Libya had cleared, there was dizzying confusion in Washington.

Throughout the night of Sept. 11, according to a senior State Department official, employees had monitored the fast-moving events in Benghazi from their Operations Center. First there was a report of injured embassy personnel. Then American security personnel on the ground in Benghazi discovered the body of Sean Smith, a ten-year foreign-service officer who had been detailed to Libya from his post in the Hague. Smith had been in the Benghazi consulate with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, but the two men had become separated in the smoke and chaos created as attackers lobbed rocket-propelled grenades and fired weapons into the compound.

Rising flames and gunfire forced the security officers to flee the consulate, cutting off their search for Stevens. When they returned, Stevens was nowhere to be found. Hope flared briefly when word reached Washington that a blond, blue-eyed man had arrived at the local hospital. Perhaps Stevens was alive and being treated? Then the terrible news came through: Stevens had been transported from the consulate to the hospital, probably by Libyans who were trying to save his life. But he was dead on arrival.

By 7:30 a.m. in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 12, an alert was transmitted to senior officials that four Americans had been killed in the stunning assault, including Stevens. As employees streamed into Foggy Bottom, they began trading stories about Stevens and the other victims. “People were heartsick,” recalls a senior official who had worked on Libya’s governmental transition with Stevens. “What was so tragic was that Chris thought he had succeeded, and that the hard part was over.” Soon after arriving that morning, senior officials, many of whom had worked closely with Stevens, received a briefing on the assault. When the briefer described the discovery of the ambassador’s body at the hospital, one woman began to weep. Several people at the meeting got out of their chairs, bringing her tissues. “It was an overwhelming moment,” recalls one participant. “These were some of the people who appointed him to his job.”

Through it all, Hillary Clinton was a source of strength for her wounded department, employees say. She moved back and forth between public appearances and private internal diplomacy, showing her trademark combination of resolve, empathy, and hyper-competence. She began at State, looking drawn but determined, calling the events in Benghazi “an attack that should shock the conscience of people of all faiths around the world.” Later that morning she stood by President Obama at the White House, looking alternately stoic and stricken. Then the president and his secretary of state traveled to Foggy Bottom where they met with shocked employees. Those who saw Clinton in action this week say it was in the more private, intimate moments where she was at her best.

That day, Clinton called to console the grieving relatives of the victims, including Stevens’s sister and Smith’s wife. Later she held a video conference with the shell-shocked staff of the embassy in Tripoli. “It was tearful and incredibly moving,” according to one source who declined to provide further details out of respect for those who were still absorbing the trauma that had befallen their embassy. “But it was an inspirational moment that made me, once again, proud to work for Hillary.”

On Friday, Clinton and Obama traveled to Andrews Air Force Base to receive and honor the remains of the four slain Americans. Standing next to the president, dressed in a black pantsuit with a triple strand of pearls around her neck, Clinton was a picture of dignity in mourning. When she stepped up to the microphone, flag-draped coffins nearby, her voice broke as she spoke. “Today we honor four Americans who gave their lives for our country and our values,” she said.