Senior State Department officials on Tuesday refuted claims by administration members that the deadly attack in Libya on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 was provoked by an anti-Islam video.
An official explained, in detail, what happened on the night that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed by an armed group of militants.
Stevens spent the day inside the Benghazi compound, which served as one of two U.S. bases in the city, "because it is 9-11, out of prudence, he has all his meetings on the compound," the unidentified official explained.
"They are out in the street in front of the compound, everything is calm at 8:30 p.m., there is nothing unusual - there has been nothing unusual during the day at all outside," the official said.
"At 9:40pm," agents inside the compound heard “loud noises coming from the front gate” and “gunfire and explosion," said one of the State officials. The official said a security video "of the perimeter and the camera on the main gate reveals a large number of men, armed men, flowing into the compound” at that time.
Asked if the State Department agreed with the White House conclusion that the attack was sparked by the video instead of a planned terror attack on U.S. civilians, the official stated, "that is the question you'd have to ask others, that was not our conclusion."
That statement contradicts what the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on Sunday morning political talk shows on Sept. 16.
"What sparked the violence was a very hateful video on the Internet," Rice said on "Fox News Sunday." "It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States. .... What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent. And those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control.”
On September 13th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the anti-Islam video that sparked protests in Cairo, Egypt and other Muslim countries, as reported in the UK Telegraph.
"It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage," Clinton said following a bilateral meeting with her Moroccan counterpart, Saad-Eddine Al-Otmani. "We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue."
State Department officials are set to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday on accusations that the diplomatic agency failed to provide security despite repeated requests from Americans in Libya.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a key House Republican who was the first lawmaker to visit Libya since last month's attacks, has alleged that the State Department "coordinated" with the White House to deny the security in order to give the appearance of "normalization" between the U.S. and the largely Muslim nation, following the fall of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year.
The State Department notified a handful of reporters late Tuesday of the background briefing call. Its purpose was to preview what officials have told members of Congress of the attack that has been under investigation by the FBI.
The State Department officials described in detail the chaotic scene as attackers poured into the consulate compound and American officials tried to escape.
The first State Department official said that as the attack began, one special agent pulled Ambassador Stevens from his bedroom and rushed him and Sean Smith to a “safe haven inside the building."
The official explained that as dozens of armed men entered the compound, some broke into the main building where Stevens and the others had locked themselves in the safe haven, describing it as an area protected with a heavy metal grill and multiple locks, designed to open only from the inside.
The militants proceeded to "walk around inside the building, in the living area, not the safe haven area.” Because the building was dark, when they looked through the metal grill they could not see that the Americans were hiding within, said the official.
“The building is dark, they look through the grill, they see nothing. They try the grill, the locks on the grill, they can't get through,” said the official. “The agent is in fact watching from the darkness; he has his long-gun trained on them and he is ready to shoot if they come any further.”
The official said that the attackers instead lit a fire within the building, with “jerry cans full of diesel fuel that they picked up at the entrance when they torched the barracks.”
As the building began to fill with "extremely thick" black smoke, the "ambassador and the two others" made a decision to open a window and leave the safe haven.
The security agent leading the way to the exit, could "barely breathe” or see and only after exiting the building and finding himself amid a fire-fight did he realize he had lost his companions, according to the official's account.
The agent went back into the building several times to retrieve them before "collapsing" from smoke inhalation. The agent radioed others, including a fellow officer in the security post and two others barricaded in a separate building for help.
The agent within the security post heeded the call, escaping the attackers after setting off a smoke grenade to "obscure what he [was] doing."
That agent reached two others in a separate building on the compound and the three drove in an armored vehicle to the main residence, where they took turns "going into the building [through] the choking smoke, on their hands and knees … trying to find their two colleagues.” They found the dead body of Sean Smith but were “unable to find the ambassador," said the State official.
Stevens was discovered at a local hospital but it was unclear how he arrived there. He was deemed to have died of smoke inhalation.
"We do not know exactly how the Ambassador got to the hospital that is one of the issues that we hope to resolve in the ongoing reviews," a second State Department official said to reporters.
This story was updated at 6:10 a.m.