The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi apparently was not troubled at first by a smattering of protesters on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks last week, but that changed abruptly at 9:35 p.m. when it sent a message that the building was under heavy assault, U.S. government sources said.
New information emerging a week after attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, suggests that the protests at the outset were so small and unthreatening as to attract little notice.
While many questions remain, the latest accounts differ from the initial information provided by the Obama administration, which had suggested that protests in front of the consulate over an anti-Islamic film had played a major role in precipitating the subsequent violent attack.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official on Wednesday branded the assault in which the four Americans died a "terrorist attack."
And U.S. intelligence officials are said to be looking closely at the potential role played by an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
In recent days, Obama administration officials have slightly softened their claim that the attack was not preplanned, saying that while there is no intelligence to suggest it was, not all the facts are known.
Debate over whether militant groups preplanned the violent assault and whether the consulate was adequately protected have become election-season fodder, with Republican lawmakers demanding answers and the Democratic administration seeking to deflect criticism that it should have been better prepared.
Some new details have emerged this week on security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate.
There were five civilian American security officers at the consulate, congressional aides said on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said it had contracted with a private security firm, U.K.-based Blue Mountain Group, to hire Libyan nationals to carry out security measures at the Benghazi consulate, such as operate metal detectors and sweep cars for explosives.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers pressed their questions on U.S. security arrangements in a region where weapons, including sophisticated arms looted from arsenals assembled by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, are widely available.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon said he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection."
"We had no military personnel there" in Benghazi, McKeon said after a closed-door briefing from Pentagon officials. He said this was "inconceivable" after an attack on the compound earlier in the year.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the security arrangements earlier this week. "Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world," she said on Tuesday.