WASHINGTON — US officials said Wednesday that they are investigating the four-hour assault that killed the ambassador to Libya and three other Americans as a well-orchestrated terrorist attack, not a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory movie about the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
President Obama, who huddled with State Department advisers and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff, called the killing of American diplomats outrageous and vowed to track down the assailants.
“Make no mistake, justice will be done,” Obama said, adding that “we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
John Christopher Stevens was the first American ambassador to die in the line of duty in more than three decades.
In response to the attacks, all but critical US diplomatic workers were pulled out of Libya and Obama dispatched additional security personnel to the region, including about 50 Marines to guard embassy workers in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The attack took place at a US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Two US warships were reportedly moving toward the Libyan coast.
The Libya assault — and an earlier violent protest at the US Embassy in Cairo — became a flashpoint in the presidential campaign.
Republican Mitt Romney late Tuesday pounced on a statement from the US Embassy in Cairo. The statement condemns the film and calls for respect for all religious beliefs. Romney accused the Obama administration of making an “apology for our values” and not denouncing the protesters.
The State Department said the statement was sent before the Cairo protest, or the Libya attack, occurred. Romney apparently thought it was issued in response to the attacks.
“The statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation,” Romney said Wednesday in a press conference in Florida.
Later in the day, in an interview with CBS, Obama faulted Romney for a “tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
The protest in Cairo was sparked by the film that denigrates Islam and Mohammed. Previous unflattering depictions of the prophet, particularly in cartoons in Denmark in 2005, had also ignited anger in the Muslim world. The Egyptian protesters, who pulled down the American flag flying above the embassy and replaced it with an Islamic one, demanded that the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, do something about the film.
The film was initially blamed for both the Cairo protest and the attack in Libya. But Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who was briefed by administration officials, told the Globe that the Libya attack appeared to be premeditated.
“The evidence was that attack was very well planned and very well structured,” he said. “This was not a mob.”
But exactly who it was, or whether the attack was linked to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, remained unknown Wednesday.
A senior Obama administration official described a running gunbattle at the Benghazi complex, which included an outlying annex where between 25 and 30 officials were working. The facility came under fire around 10 p.m. local time Tuesday and was secured with the help of Libyan security officials.
“Many details of what happened in Benghazi are still unknown or unclear,” the administration official said, adding it was “clearly a complex attack.”
Stevens, 52, America’s top diplomat in Libya since May, was trapped with two others inside the main consulate building, the official said.
Stevens was hailed as the consummate foreign policy hand and defender of human rights. He had been an outspoken supporter of Libya’s fragile new democracy, which emerged after rebels overthrew Moammar Khadafy last year. Stevens was one of the first Americans on the ground in the then-rebel stronghold of Benghazi after the uprising began.
In a video he recorded after becoming ambassador, Stevens said he “was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights.”
Stevens was scheduled to meet at a hospital in Benghazi on Wednesday with Dr. Thomas Burke from Massachusetts General Hospital to talk about a training program Burke is setting up. Burke is chief of the Emergency Department Division of Global Health and Human Rights, which links MGH doctors with those in vulnerable regions.
In an interview from Turkey, where he was evacuated after the attack, Burke described a harrowing night and mournful following morning.
Burke said he was talking on the telephone Tuesday night with Stevens and a security attache when the assault started. The conversation quickly ended with a curse from the attache as he hung up the phone.
Burke was staying in a hotel in the same neighborhood as the consulate and heard the gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The next morning, he met with hospital workers.
“Everybody was just terribly sad,’’ Burke said. “Ambassador Stevens was clearly loved. He got out into the community, had meals in people’s homes.’’
Kerry, who said Stevens had “the guts and grit to serve as our envoy during the rebellion,” said Stevens did not appear to be the target of the attack.
“He happened to be there,” said Kerry, noting that Stevens worked out of the embassy in Tripoli. “It was not an attack on him, per se. To the best of our knowledge it was an attack on America and Americans.”
Also killed was Sean Smith, a foreign service officer, Air Force veteran, and father of two, who was on temporary duty, according to the State Department. Smith was a key figure in an online science fiction gaming community known as EVE. He reportedly was communicating with fellow gamers as the assault began to unfold, saying he hoped he wasn’t going to be killed and ending his communications with an expletive and the word “gunfire.”
Two other American employees of the State Department were killed, officials said, but their identities were not immediately revealed. At least two other Americans were injured.
Members of Congress struck a more cautious tone on the attack than Romney.
“We appreciate that senior Libyan leaders have condemned these cowardly attacks, and we now look to the Libyan government to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice, and that US diplomats are protected,” GOP Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Connecticut Independent Joseph I. Lieberman said in joint statement. “We have confidence that our own government will provide all necessary assistance to this end.’’
Some specialists questioned whether the consulate’s security was sufficient given the unrest in the country and growing reports of the presence of Al Qaeda-inspired militants. The force protecting the consulate was a combination of US security personnel and local contractors, as is the case at most foreign diplomatic outposts.
But a senior administration official said a recent security assessment of the mission’s needs concluded that the precautions for the facility and Stevens were sufficient.
US and Libyan officials took pains to stress that the deaths would not damage growing ties between the nations.
“This attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya,” Obama said. “Libyan personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety.’’
Libya’s interim leader, Mohammed el-Megarif, called the attack cowardly and vowed to hunt down the assailants.
“We extend our apology to America, the American people and the whole world,” Megarif told reporters in Tripoli.
As the FBI and other US agencies investigate the attack, some specialists warned that the film on Mohammed could spark more violence.
“I would worry about Friday prayers,” said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Friday could prove a difficult day for US embassies around the world.’’
“This could gather steam,” added Isobel Coleman, director of the council’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative. “It could get worse in the coming weeks.”Globe correspondent Melanie Dostis contributed to this report. Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Globebender