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House Republicans' Report Sheds New Light on Benghazi Attack

After a more than two-year investigation into the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, House Republicans released a lengthy report Tuesday.
Image: The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames in September 2012
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames in this September 11, 2012.Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters, file

A long-awaited report on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi details an array of bureaucratic miscues and inter-agency blunders but does not specifically blame former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for events that led to the deaths of four Americans.

The 800-page document represents the end of a costly, politically charged investigation led by House Republicans who sought to understand how the attack unfolded, and how the Obama administration — including Clinton — responded. Democrats accused Republicans of using the inquiry to hurt Clinton's chances at the presidency. But after more than two years and an estimated $7 million, the report, released Tuesday, instead paints a more nuanced portrait of incompetence.

Related: Five Takeaways From Clinton's Benghazi Testimony

It details a misunderstanding of America's allies, a mistaken belief that fighting had subsided and breakdowns that delayed the military's attempts to save Americans from the diplomatic compound — including the inability to decide whether Marines should wear their uniforms.

The report also offers new details about why U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the casualties, was at the compound in the Libyan city with only two State Department bodyguards, months after the British and others had evacuated the area.

NBC News obtained an exclusive look at the first 175-page section of the full 800-page House Select Committee on Benghazi report before the full report was released later Tuesday morning. The Democratic minority released its own report Monday.

Related: Six Takeaways from Benghazi Report

Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, said in a news conference on Tuesday that the report did not focus on Clinton, but sought a true and complete accounting of the events that led to the four Americans' deaths, and the government's response. He stressed a gaping disconnect between what was happening on the ground in Benghazi and what was happening in Washington.

But other Republican committee members criticized Clinton more directly, accusing her of prioritizing America's relationship with Libya over security at the Benghazi compound, and of trying to spin the attack for political gain. Members Jim Jordan of Ohio and and Mike Pompeo of Kansas wrote their own report, labeled "additional views," focusing on Clinton, accusing her of missing opportunities to protect American lives.

In that sense, the committee’s findings could underscore accusations that the Obama administration — and Clinton’s State Department — were more concerned with public perception than with acting decisively to save American lives.

Clinton, speaking at a campaign stop in Denver on Tuesday, said the Benghazi committee's investigations into the attacks and subsequent report "took on a partisan tinge."

"I said this when I testified for 11 hours, that no one has thought more about or lost more sleep over the lives that we lost, the four Americans, which was devastating," she said. "And we owe it, we owe it to those brave Americans to make sure that we learn the right lessons from this tragedy."

"I’ll leave it to others to characterize the report but I think it’s pretty clear it’s time to move on," she said.

Related: Hillary Clinton: 'Time to Move On' After Benghazi Report

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday called the Republican-led efforts "political fantasizing."

Public skepticism of Clinton’s trustworthiness continues to dog her presidential campaign, even as she leads Donald Trump overall in national polling. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week, only a quarter of voters judged her to be more honest and straightforward than her GOP rival, while 41 percent favored Trump on questions of trust.

Image: U.S Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012
A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames on September 11, 2012.ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI / Reuters

One section of the report seems to allege that U.S. officials fundamentally misunderstood who their allies were at the time.

The Republican majority’s report found that 35 Americans were saved not by a “quasi-governmental militia” as previous reports concluded, or even a group the U.S. saw as allies. Instead, the report determines that the Americans were saved by the “Libyan Military Intelligence,” a group composed of military officers under the Moammar Khaddafy regime, the Libyan dictator who the U.S. helped topple just one year earlier.

The February 17 Martyr Brigade, “recommended by the Libyan Government and contractually obligated to provide security to the Mission Compound,” had fled, the report found. “In other words, some of the very individuals the United States helped remove from power during the Libyan revolution were the only Libyans that came to the assistance of the United States on the night of the Benghazi attacks,” the report states.

Read: Benghazi 101

Last fall, Clinton testified before the Benghazi committee that Stevens had originally chosen to serve in Benghazi because “he understood America had to be represented there at that pivotal time." A previous report investigating the attacks did not specify the month Clinton was looking to travel to Libya.

The Republican majority of the committee also found that Stevens traveled to the U.S. mission that week to both fill a temporary staffing gap and to spearhead an effort to make Benghazi a permanent diplomatic post.

Image: J. Christopher Stevens
J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed during a 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi.U.S. Embassy in Tripoli

Witnesses told the committee Stevens was laying the groundwork for a visit by Clinton just one month later — in October 2012 — and “the hope was to establish a permanent consulate in Benghazi for the Secretary to present to the Libyan government during her trip.”

Discussions were already underway in Washington for how to fund the upgrades, and one month before the end of the fiscal year there was pressure to assemble a package before available funds were lost. The State Department points out that Clinton’s trip had been previously discussed by foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission in Libya, Gregory Hicks, during his May 2013 public testimony before the House Oversight and Government reform Committee.

Related: Report Drags Clinton Back into Benghazi Mire

The report highlights the military’s failure to carry out Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s order to deploy forces to Benghazi and the lengthy delay that prevented the military assets from arriving at the embassy in Tripoli until 2 p.m. the day after the Benghazi attack.

“What was disturbing from the evidence the Committee found was that at the time of the final lethal attack at the Annex, no asset ordered deployed by the Secretary had even left the ground,” the report states.

Previous accounts blamed the “tyranny of time and distance” plus the failure to have airplanes ready for the significant delay in moving military assets. But the report states conflicting orders from State Department and Pentagon officials over whether Marines should wear military uniforms or civilian attire also played a role.

The State Department argues their agency did not cause any delay.

"We received diplomatic clearance, as is standard, to send a flight into Tripoli to evacuate our personnel. The process of gaining clearance did not delay or cancel any asset going to Libya," said State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner. "Concerns about what they wore had no bearing on the timing of their arrival.”

In a newly revealed two-hour secure video conference on the night of the attacks led by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and attended by Clinton and others, State Department officials raised concerns about the diplomatic sensitivities of the attire to be worn by assets launched.

Image: Hillary Clinton on Oct. 22, 2015
Former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on October 22, 2015.SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

In an interview with the Committee, Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary or Management at State, described the department’s sensitivity as wanting to “make sure that the steps we were taking would enhance the security of our personnel, not potentially diminish the security of our personnel.”

According to one commander, the report states, as forces prepared to deploy, “during the course of three hours, he and his Marines changed in and out of their uniforms four times.”

Further, several witnesses told the committee that despite Panetta’s orders, the operating plan was not to insert any asset into Benghazi. “Their understanding was that the assets needed to be sent to Tripoli to augment security at the Embassy, and that the State Department was working to move the State Department personnel from Benghazi to Tripoli.”

Republicans on the committee were critical of high-level officials in Washington for mistakenly thinking that the attacks were over and the crisis had passed by the time the emergency video conference convened, which the report alleges contributed to the confusion.

The report also finds that then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld, did not participate in the secure call because “he had left to return to his residence to host a dinner party for foreign dignitaries.” He received one update during the dinner on the attacks.

The section of the report devoted to the Benghazi assault concludes “the response to the attacks suffered from confusion and miscommunication circulating between agencies.”

Pentagon officials on Tuesday told NBC News that "the department was fully responsive to the committee's investigation, as it has been with numerous previous investigations of the tragedy". The Department of Defense underscored that the timeline of the Benghazi attacks has also long been public as well as military efforts to safely evacuate the Embassy in Tripoli.

"Even though, as the select committee’s chairman has previously acknowledged, it was impossible for the U.S. military to have changed the outcome at Benghazi under the circumstances, the department has made substantial changes to improve our responsiveness based on lessons learned from this incident,"Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Gordon Trowbridge told NBC News.

A total of 107 witnesses were interviewed for the report, including 81 never before questioned by Congress and 9 eyewitnesses to the attacks, Republicans on the committee told NBC News. The committee also received and reviewed more than 75,000 new pages of documents.

Democrats on the House Select Committee on Benghazi had a sharply different view even before seeing the Republicans’ report. The minority version released Monday concludes that "the U.S. military could not have done anything differently on the night of the attacks that would have saved the lives of the four brave Americans killed in Benghazi."

Ranking Member Elijah Cummings early Tuesday called the Republican report "partisan" but could offer no additional comment because "we haven't read it because Republicans didn't want us to check it against the evidence we obtained."‎

Democrats also attacked Republicans over the committee’s process, including what they describe as “grave abuses,” such as excluding Democrats from interviews, concealing exculpatory evidence, withholding interview transcripts, leaking inaccurate information, issuing unilateral subpoenas, sending armed Marshals to the home of a cooperative witness, and even conducting political fundraising “by exploiting the deaths of four Americans.”

Image: U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton deliver remarks during a transfer ceremony of the remains of U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed this week in Benghazi, at Andrews Air Force Base near Washingt
President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliver remarks during a transfer ceremony of the remains of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed in Benghazi at Andrews Air Force Base on September 14, 2012.Jason Reed / REUTERS, file

The Democrats chastised committee chairman Trey Gowdy ,who they said “personally and publicly accused Secretary Clinton of compromising a highly classified intelligence source."

Democrats did acknowledge, as had been previously determined, that "security measures in Benghazi were woefully inadequate as a result of decisions made by officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.” But their report concluded, “Secretary Clinton never personally denied any requests for additional security in Benghazi.”

Reacting to the GOP report early Tuesday, Toner, the State Department deputy spokesman, said: "We have made great progress towards making our posts safer since 2012. We have been working to respond to the extensive findings and recommendations of the independent Accountability Review Board, closing out 26 out of its 29 recommendations."

A Select Committee spokesman dismissed the Democrats’ report as “rehashed, partisan talking points” aimed at defending Hillary Clinton.

Appearing on Morning Joe on Tuesday, Gowdy dismissed Democrats' charge that the report targeted Clinton for political reasons rather than investigating the reasons for the loss of American lives in the attack.

"They will be shocked when they read the report, if they do bother to read the report," Gowdy said. "It is a series of heroic acts by our fellow Americans and what we can do to prevent the next [attack.]"

"Yes, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state at the time," he added. "I can't get around that fact, but the focus of this report is on exactly what the families asked us to focus on."

A senior White House officials told NBC News on Tuesday that the report released by the Republican majority on the committee "has been a right-wing conspiracy theory for years now — and has been debunked several times over, including by Republican reports and investigations."