WASHINGTON – FBI agents protected by heavily armed U.S. troops entered the burned-out American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, for the first time since the Sept. 11 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, allowing investigators to finally collect evidence in a case that has emerged as a political issue in the presidential campaign.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the military provided security and aircraft to transport FBI investigators to Benghazi to examine the lightly guarded consulate compound, which was looted after the attack. The team stayed “a number of hours,” he said.
For three weeks, U.S. and Libyan officials had deemed the city too dangerous for the FBI to operate. Little said the visit was approved by Libya’s transitional government in Tripoli. It was conducted in secret and with heavy security because of concern that militants might attack the FBI team.
U.S. officials separately confirmed that Turkish authorities are holding two Tunisian men, reportedly suspects in the attacks. The pair were arrested as they tried to enter Turkey using fake passports at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, Turkey’s Kanal D television reported.
“The arrest is real,” said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The connection is unclear.”
GOP critics have accused the White House of trying to underplay the attack for political purposes, citing the administration’s changing descriptions of the assault. Senior officials initially said the violence grew out of a peaceful protest but later called it a terrorist attack involving extremists who may have ties to al-Qaida.
American lawmakers also are scrutinizing the incident. The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has interviewed Eric Nordstrom, who served as State Department regional security officer in Libya from September 2011 to June 2012 and who alleges that the mission made repeated requests for additional security.
Nordstrom will testify at a hearing next week, committee spokeswoman Becca Watkins said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee will conduct a separate inquiry, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the committee.
Pressed by reporters to explain why it took so long for the FBI to reach Benghazi, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said investigators had collected evidence at “a variety of other places” in Libya and elsewhere.
“I’m satisfied with the progress that we have made,” he said.