The Cable

Inside the public relations disaster at the Cairo embassy

One staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was responsible for the statement and tweets Tuesday that have become grist for the presidential campaign, and that staffer ignored explicit State Department instructions not to issue the statement, one U.S. official close to the issue told The Cable.

Two additional administration officials confirmed the details of this account when contacted late Wednesday by The Cable.

The statement, issued as a press release on the U.S. Embassy website, has been attacked by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, lawmakers, and conservatives around the country as an inappropriate "apology" and a failure to stand up for American principles such as freedom of speech.

The White House distanced itself from the statement Tuesday, and Romney criticized it directly in his initial reaction to the attacks in Egypt and Libya shortly thereafter, accusing President Barack Obama of evicing sympathy for the attackers.

On Wednesday, Romney doubled down on that criticism, saying, "I think it's a terrible course for America to apologize for our values."

President Obama commented on the controversy in an interview to be aired Wednesday evening on 60 Minutes.

"In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn't come from me, it didn't come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger," Obama said. "And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office."

But Obama's remarks belie the enormous frustration of top officials at the State Department and White House with the actions of the man behind the statement, Cairo senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz, who wrote the release and oversees the embassy's Twitter feed, according to a detailed account of the Tuesday's events.

The official noted that the statement was posted at exactly 12:18 p.m. Cairo time -- 6:18 a.m. Washington time -- well before the protests began. Romney has said, wrongly, that the statement was the administration's first response to the protests, but the official said that the demonstrations did not begin until 4 p.m. Cairo time and protesters breached the wall about 2 hours later.

After the breach, as public criticism of the statement grew, the Cairo Embassy Twitter account continued to send out tweets defending it, some of which were later deleted. One deleted tweet, originally posted at 12:30 a.m. Cairo time, said, "This morning's condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy."

Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with just one person senior to himself, Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the charge d'affaires at the embassy on Tuesday because Ambassador Anne Patterson was in Washington at the time, the official said.

Schwartz sent the statement to the State Department in Washington before publishing and the State Department directed him not to post it without changes, but Schwartz posted it anyway.

"The statement was not cleared with anyone in Washington. It was sent as ‘This is what we are putting out,'" the official said. "We replied and said this was not a good statement and that it needed major revisions. The next email we received from Embassy Cairo was ‘We just put this out.'"

A heated discussion ensued among State Department and White House officials over e-mail as the controversy over the statement grew Tuesday evening, even grabbing the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, those same officials were dealing with a more serious attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four American officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

"People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content," the official said. "Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn't provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'"

Despite being aware of Washington's objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.

"Not only did they push out the statement but they continued to engage on Twitter and retweet it," the official said. "[Schwartz] would have been the one directing folks to engage on Twitter on this."

At approximately 10:30 p.m. Washington time, Clinton issued a statement on both the Libya and Egypt attacks that included a reference to religious tolerance as well as an emphasis on the administration's condemnation of the embassy attack.

"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," she said. "Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

Despite his disregard of Washington's instructions and his actions throughout the day Tuesday, Schwartz has not yet been disciplined in any way and is still the lead public affairs officer at the embassy.

"He remains at post at the same capacity as he was," the official said.

The State Department declined to comment and a request sent to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for comment was not immediately returned.

The Cable

Senior officials reveal details of harrowing battle at Benghazi consulate

Tuesday's attack by militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was complex, raged for more than four hours, and included multiple attempts to retake the main consulate building, according two senior administration officials who briefed reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Amid the chaos, the whereabouts of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attacks, remained unknown until the next morning, the officials said.

"We want to make clear that we are still operating within the confusion of first reports. Many of the details of what happened in Benghazi are still unclear," one of the officials said to start the briefing. "The facts could very well change as we get a better understanding."

The officials then proceeded to detail what they said was the U.S. government's current understanding of how the events in Benghazi unfolded. The officials declined to confirm reports that the administration believes the attack was planned in advance, but they described an extensive and complicated effort by well-armed and seemingly well-informed attackers that caught them by surprise.

At about 10 PM local time (4 PM EDT), the compound in Benghazi began taking fire from "unidentified Libyan extremists," the official said. Fifteen minutes later, the assailants had gotten inside the compound and began firing on the main building and setting it on fire.

Although there are usually 25 to 30 people working on the compound, at the time of the initial attack, only three people were inside the main building: Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, and an unidentified State Department regional security officer. They became separated in the thick smoke inside the main consulate building and only the regional security officer was able to get out, the official said.

The regional security officer returned to the building with more security personnel to try to rescue Stevens and Smith.

"At that time they found Sean. He was already dead, and they pulled him from the building" the official said. "They were unable to locate Chris before they were driven from the building by the fire, the smoke, and the continuing small arms fire."

At about 10:45 local time, security personnel assigned to an annex that was part of the compound made another attempt to retake the main consulate building but they took heavy fire and returned the mission annex, the official said.

At about 11:20 local time, they made another attempt to retake the building, this time with the support of Libyan security forces. They did secure it and proceeded to evacuate the remaining embassy personnel to the annex.

Around midnight local time, the annex itself came under attack. The ensuing gun battle lasted for two hours and resulted in the deaths of two more "U.S. personnel" that the officials said were State Department personnel.

With the help of more Libyan security forces, the situation was finally under control by about 2:30 a.m. local time, but the ambassador was nowhere to be found.

"We believe that Ambassador Stevens got out of the building and was taken to a Benghazi hospital. We do not have any information about what his condition was at that time," the official said, adding that he U.S. government doesn't know who brought Stevens to the hospital, only that it wasn't Americans.

Around daybreak Stevens's body was handed over to "U.S. personnel" at the Benghazi airport. All U.S. personnel, including the dead and three wounded, were subsequently evacuated to Tripoli and then sent on to Germany. The wounded will be treated in Germany and the rest will return home.

The Tripoli embassy has been reduced to emergency staffing levels and all diplomatic missions around the world have been directed to review their security procedures, the official said.

A second administration official said that the Pentagon has deployed a Marine Corps fleet anti-terrorism security team (FAST) based out of Europe.

"The mission of this team is to secure the diplomatic security to our embassy in Tripoli and protect U.S. personnel as needed," the official said. The official declined to speculate if U.S. forces would be involved in the hunt for the attackers but said, "The Department of Defense is ready to respond with additional military measures as directed by the president."

The briefing left several questions about the Tuesday attack unanswered. The officials wouldn't speculate about the identity of the attackers or whether the Benghazi attack was connected to an earlier protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during which protesters breached the compound walls.

"It was clearly a complex attack," the official said. "It's too early to speak to who they were and if they might have been otherwise affiliated outside of Libya."

The officials declined to talk about the security situation at the consulate but did said there was a review of security at all diplomatic security arrangements in the context of preparing for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

"At that time, there was no indication and no threat streams to indicate we were inadequately postured [at the Benghazi consulate]," the official said.

The officials said they simply don't know exactly when or how Stevens died and they declined to confirm reports he died from smoke inhalation, pending an autopsy.

The officials could not say whether the attackers were part of the protests outside the embassy walls.

"We frankly don't have a full picture of what may have been going on outside of the compound walls before the firing began," the official said.

One of the officials did have information on the Cairo embassy statement on Tuesday that has become an issue in the presidential campaign.

"That statement was not coordinated with Washington and therefore was taken down," the official said. "My understanding is that was released at noon Cairo time, which was before the protest began."