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What was the Benghazi attack?

Armed militants killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the State Department’s Sean Smith, and diplomatic security agents Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty on September 11, 2012.

The American flag stands at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol September 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. The flag was lowered for U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other embassy employees who were killed when the embassy in Benghazi was attacked by a mob potentially angered by an American-made video mocking Islam’s founding prophet.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When people talk about Benghazi now, they don’t just mean the major city in Eastern Libya: they’re referring to an attack on US diplomatic and intelligence facilities there on September 11, 2012. That night, armed militants overwhelmed security at the US mission and killed Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, State Department Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and diplomatic security agents Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

Immediately afterwards, U.S. intelligence officials and the Obama Administration concluded that the attacks grew out of a nearby mob that was protesting an anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims. This conclusion, the CIA later decided, was wrong: the people initially believed to be protesters were actually a loose group of Islamic militants who had shown up at the mission with the intent to attack it.

The attack spawned a still-ongoing investigation led by Congressional Republicans and conservative media, who worry that the Obama administration has self-servingly distorted the truth of what happened and who see the incident as evidence of their long-running concerns that the administration is weak on terrorism.

This investigation has centered around three different questions: whether the Benghazi mission was sufficiently protected, whether the US failed to stop the attack when it could have, and whether the administration covered up the truth about the attack’s origins.

The first reflects a real problem for American foreign policy. Though critics have alleged that the answers to the latter two questions involve serious administration misconduct, successive investigations have not supported these accusations.