WASHINGTON • A team of FBI agents arrived in Benghazi, Libya, to investigate the assault against the U.S. Consulate and left after about 12 hours on the ground as the hunt for those possibly connected to the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans narrowed to one or two people in an extremist group, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Agents arrived in Benghazi before dawn on Thursday and departed after sunset, after weeks of waiting for access to the crime scene to investigate the Sept. 11 attack.
The agents and several dozen U.S. special operations forces were there for about 12 hours, said a senior Defense Department official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation. The FBI agents went to “all the relevant locations” in the city, FBI spokeswoman Kathy Wright said. The FBI would not say what, if anything, they found.
Killed in the attack were Stevens, a State Department computer expert and two security agents who were former Navy SEALS. Al-Qaida-linked militants are believed responsible.
In the U.S., the attack has become caught up in election-year politics. Republicans accuse Obama administration officials of being misleading in the early aftermath about what they knew about the attackers and for lax security at the diplomatic mission in a lawless part of post-revolution Libya.
Immediately after the attack, officials said the consulate was stormed by protesters outraged over an anti-Muslim film produced by a California man.
U.S. intelligence and special operations forces have focused on at most “one or two individuals” in the Libya-based extremist group Ansar al-Shariah who may have had something to do with the attack, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official. But that official and two others said there was no definitive evidence linking even those individuals to the attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the investigation publicly.
Members of Ansar al-Shariah were recorded making boastful calls to other militants after the attack, including to members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is suspected of having a role in the attack, one of the officials said. But that’s common in the aftermath of any such attack, when different militant groups try to claim credit to build their own stature in the region, the official said.
So far, U.S. intelligence has found no evidence showing communication between militants prior to the attack, which took place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
Several Republican lawmakers have said Stevens and his staff made repeated requests for security improvements at the Benghazi consulate that the State Department denied.
The State Department has assigned an independent panel to look into the security procedures before, during and after the attack. That five member accountability review board met for the first time Thursday and compiled documents to go through, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. The board must submit its findings and any recommendations it may have to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton within 60 days, unless it is determined that more time is required.
The Pentagon is conducting its own internal review to see whether the military played any role in assessing the security in Libya, spokesman George Little said.
FBI agents had been staying away from Benghazi until the city was more secure, law enforcement officials said. But agents were in other parts of the country investigating the attack since Sept. 18.
Little said it was “a matter of days” between the request for the FBI to access the Benghazi crime scene and the team’s arrival Thursday, Libya time, when the U.S. military airlifted them to the city.
The request to the Pentagon to transport the FBI to Benghazi came several days ago and it took a few days to get authorization from the Libyan government and to make other necessary arrangements to get the team there, the senior Defense Department official said.
U.S. officials also suggested that there may have been some disagreement between the State Department and the FBI over whether or not the FBI team would use Libyan security or seek approval for the U.S. military to handle the mission. The U.S. Army Delta Force troops flew into Benghazi with the FBI team on three C-130 transport aircraft.
Attorney General Eric Holder said people should not assume that “all that we could do or have been doing” in the investigation is restricted solely to Benghazi.
“I’m satisfied with the progress,” Holder said Thursday. He said there were a variety of other places inside and outside Libya where “all these things could be done and have been done and that the matter has been under active investigation.”