The Senate Intelligence Committee's long-awaited final report on Benghazi says the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate could have been prevented and faults the State Department for failing to respond to the deteriorating security situation despite numerous warnings.
The committee also concluded that the administration's Benghazi talking points, which top Obama officials including then-Ambassador to the United Nations and current National Security Advisor Susan Rice repeatedly used to explain the motives behind the attack in the following days, wrongly blamed protests over an anti-Islam video as the cause.
The panel faulted the intelligence community for not accurately assessing the situation on the ground during the attack and failing to quickly correct the mistaken talking points.
The report finds that the attack, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens, was preventable, based on extensive intelligence identifying terrorist activity in Libya and given the known security shortfalls at the U.S. Consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi. Intelligence reports had cited prior threats and attacks against Western targets in the country.
The Benghazi attack became a flashpoint during the final months of the 2012 presidential election, with Republicans charging that Obama administration tried to play down evidence that it was a premeditated terrorist attack to help his campaign.
The panel’s new report also faults the intelligence community for inaccurately referring to the presence of a protest at the mission before the attack based on open-source and limited intelligence. The report found that intelligence analysts took too long to collect sufficient intelligence and eyewitness statements that would have contradicted the initial finding that the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi was sparked by a spontaneous protest.
“The committee worked on a bipartisan basis to investigate the various allegations that have come out since the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in September 2012 and to get to the truth about what happened leading up to, during and after the attacks,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
“I hope this report will put to rest many of the conspiracy theories and political accusations about what happened in Benghazi,” she added. “I strongly believe we should focus on what really matters: honoring the four Americans who were killed, bringing the attackers to justice, ensuring accurate and actionable warnings of future terrorist attacks and making sure that all U.S. facilities personnel overseas have adequate security and protection.”
The panel approved the report by voice vote in December. It was based on dozens of committee hearings, briefings and interviews with survivors of the attacks and the review of thousands of pages of intelligence and State Department materials between September 2012 and December 2013, according to the committee.
After the attack, the State Department set up an independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) to investigate the causes and circumstances surrounding it. The ARB, chaired by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Michael Mullen, released a report and findings three months later.
The ARB report concluded that “systematic management and leadership failures” at the State Department led to “grossly” inadequate security at the mission in Benghazi. But Republicans in Congress complained that the the ARB report downplayed security decisions made by senior State Department officials and instead blamed four subordinates who they said had little responsibility for the key events.
The ARB made dozens of recommendations to improve security in U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world, but a State Department inspector general found last September that the department had failed to improve security at “high threat” diplomatic posts a year after the Benghazi assault.
The Senate report doesn't strongly address the hotly debated topic of what role, if any, al Qaeda played in the attack. Instead, it simply states that “individuals affiliated with terrorist groups,” including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Anshar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Mohammad Jamal Network participated in the “well-armed” assault.
“Intelligence suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic,” the report concludes. “It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate.”
David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times published a story in early January arguing that claims of an al Qaeda connection were bogus or “tenuous.” Other reports have said a militia leader involved in the attack had strong ties to al Qaeda and may have worked for Osama bin Laden.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss R-Ga., the top Republican on the committee, said the panel worked on a bipartisan basis to investigate all of the allegations and “get to the truth” about what happened.
“In spite of the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi and ample strategic warnings, the United States government simply did not do enough to prevent these attacks and ensure the safety of those serving in Benghazi,” he said. “I hope that the Administration — and most specifically, the Intelligence Community, the State Department, and our military — will review this bipartisan report carefully and quickly adopt the committee’s recommendations.”
The report includes 18 recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy at U.S. facilities abroad.
Among the top recommendations, the panel says the State Department must more quickly and thoroughly assess security lapses and put in place upgrades with “minimal bureaucratic delay.” Only in rare instances and “only after a formal risk management plan has been put in place” should State Department facilities that fall short of security standards be allowed to continue to operate, the report says.
“It is imperative that the State Department, the Department of Defense and the [intelligence community] work together to identify and prioritize the largest gaps in coverage for the protection of U.S., diplomatic, military and intelligence personnel in the North Africa region and other high-threat posts around the world,” the panel said.
In addressing the inaccurate talking points, the panel says the intelligence community should expand its capabilities to conduct “analysis of open-source information including extremist-affiliated social media, particularly in areas where it is hard to develop human intelligence or there has been recent political upheaval.”
Intelligence analysts also “should more aggressively request and integrate eyewitness reporting especially from the U.S. government personnel in the aftermath of a crisis.”
The government, the panel said, “cannot rely on local security in areas where the United States facilities are under high threat or where the host nation is not capable of providing adequate security.”
The CIA hired local Libyan militia members as security for the U.S. facilities in Benghazi but most of them failed to show up the evening of the attacks and declined CIA security officers attempts to have them mount a rescue mission once the attacks began.
The White House on Wednesday said that the Senate’s report confirmed the administration’s own findings that the consulate did not have enough security to prevent the deadly attack.
"This reinforces what other investigations have found, which is that there was not security to protect the four Americans who lost their lives," Obama press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
This story was published at 11:49 a.m. and has been updated.