A rare bipartisan report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released Wednesday attempted to put to rest conspiracy theories and politically-driven allegations about the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks that killed four American officials.
The panel's 85-page report placed blame for the incident first and foremost on armed Islamist militants -- mostly associated with five groups closely tied to core-al Qaeda -- but also with the State Department run by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose staff failed to heed incessant warnings that security was evaporating there.
The committee's majority Democrats, led by Chairman Dianne Feinstein of California, concluded that the attacks "were likely preventable."
While investigators found "no singular 'tactical warning' in the intelligence" leading up to the attack, it listed "tripwires" such as multiple military intelligence reports that the senators believe "provided ample strategic warning" of the rising danger to U.S. facilities and personnel in Benghazi. The attacks that began at 9:45 p.m. that night resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith and CIA paramilitary operators Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs.
Of greatest concern beforehand were militants, some of whom had established training camps, from Islamist extremist groups in North Africa with historic ties to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda, according to the report. Investigators found that "individuals affiliated with terrorist groups ... participated in the Sept. 12, 2012 attacks," though no evidence shows that al Qaeda in Pakistan directly ordered the attacks the same day a video by Bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri was released.
"Despite the clearly deteriorating situation in Benghazi and requests for additional security resources, few significant improvements were made by the State Department," the committee concluded, adding that the cabinet-level agency overseeing U.S. diplomacy "should have increased its security posture more significantly in Benghazi."
The senators also said that the intelligence community has since "identified several individuals responsible for the attacks." An ABC News intelligence source said most of the Benghazi perpetrators have been identified and their whereabouts are known to the U.S., even though none have been apprehended so far.
"The FBI's investigation into the individuals responsible for the Benghazi attacks has been hampered by inadequate cooperation and a lack of capacity by foreign governments to hold these perpetrators accountable, making the pursuit of justice for the attacks slow and insufficient," the report said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Wednesday told reporters that "there was no specific threat indicating an attack was coming. Obviously we've talked at length about the fact that we knew there were extremists and terrorists operating in Libya and in Benghazi. But again, we had no specific information indicating a threat -- an attack was coming."
Republican members of the committee signed the report but in "additional views" decried the "complete lack of accountability" within the Obama administration over Benghazi failings.
In the main bipartisan report, however, the committee essentially held Stevens himself at least partially accountable for his own death.
Stevens had asked Washington to beef up security at the Temporary U.S. Mission facility in Benghazi in the months leading up to attacks, based on intelligence assessments and 20 separate security incidents in the area aimed at Western officials. But he also turned down offers of military help from U.S. Africa Command. Its then-commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham, offered to extend the tour of a Special Forces team in Tripoli but Stevens declined the offer twice, the report said. At the time of the attack, only four Special Operations forces were in the embassy, including two from a unit whose identity is redacted in the report.
The assault on the compound was "not a highly coordinated plot but was opportunistic" and "likely put together in short order" in response to a near riot outside the U.S. Embassy-Cairo, not because of the offensive YouTube "Innocence of Muslims" video. Violent Islamist extremists from militant groups in Benghazi seized on the regional fervor and quickly mounted "deliberate and organized" attacks which resulted in looting and a blaze they set at the U.S. Mission.
Among at least 60 people who penetrated the Temporary U.S. Mission while Stevens was inside were individual terrorists from five groups: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen; Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, based in Algeria; the Egypt-based Jamal Network; and two branches of Ansar al-Sharia from Libya. All five groups have been designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the United States and several of those groups have well-established links to Bin Laden and core-al Qaeda, according to the U.S.
Stevens was moved into a safe room by Diplomatic Security agents, who then lost sight of the ambassador and Smith amid heavy smoke as they tried to escape.
ABC News sources have said that waivers were given by State Department bureaucrats on the specifications of the safe room in the U.S. Mission, which lacked an independent ventilation system. Stevens and Smith died from smoke inhalation. A State Department report quoted in the Senate report found such security requirements waivers to be "commonplace" at overseas U.S. facilities.
The State Department leases and builds facilities not just for its own diplomats but also for the CIA.
Diplomatic Security agents were outgunned at the U.S. Mission and even after retrieving their M-4 rifles from a building in the compound, they "did not fire a single shot," the report said. CIA paramilitaries who mounted a rescue operation from their nearby "Annex" at 10:05 p.m. -- 20 minutes into the attack -- were not delayed by anyone, contrary to some allegations, and subsequently engaged in a firefight as they retrieved Smith's remains and the surviving DS agents. Some reports have suggested the CIA operatives were not allowed to rush to Stevens' aid, which the Senate investigation said could not be corroborated.
However, the Senate report did not explain why, given the DS agents' knowledge of the security threat in Benghazi, they were not carrying their M-4s at all times within the Temporary U.S. Mission compound, as is standard at U.S. bases in Afghanistan, for example.
The second attack targeted the Annex at midnight as the CIA operatives battled their way back to their base with Smith's remains and the DS agents, but without the missing ambassador, whose body was later located at a hospital. At 5:15 a.m., after seven more U.S. armed operators had arrived from Tripoli, a mortar attack struck the Annex, killing Doherty and Woods and wounding two other officials. Accurate mortar fire like that can only be conducted by trained operators who likely already had grid coordinates, according to ABC News military sources.
"The mortar fire was particularly accurate, demonstrating a lethal capability and sophistication that changed the dynamic on the ground that night," the Senate investigation found.
The much-debated CIA talking points given to lawmakers the day after the attacks were "flawed but mostly accurate," the Senate report determined. They were heavily edited by the administration but it was the CIA that removed references to al Qaeda to protect sources and methods. The committee implied that then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice went too far in her own comments on Sunday talk shows about the video protest allegation based partially on what the Senate report calls "erroneous" analysis by some intelligence officials who had little to go on and leaped to conclusions they couldn't back up with hard evidence.
"This committee faced significant resistance from the Administration in getting access to the emails and documentation" later made public in redacted form, the Senate report added.