By Jim Kuhnhenn/The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday the United States would “work with the Libyan government to bring to justice” those who killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
“Make no mistake. Justice will be done,” he said in a Rose Garden appearance at the White House.
Obama, who ordered an increase in security at U.S. facilities overseas, said he “condemns in the strongest possible terms the outrageous and shocking” attack.
He spoke after Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney condemned the attack, and criticized the administration for its initial response to a separate incident on Tuesday, the breach of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
The president spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side as the deaths in Libya quickly roiled the U.S. political campaign, now in its final seven weeks.
Stevens, 52, and three other Americans were killed when he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff as the building came under attack by a mob armed with guns and rocket propelled grenades.
The incidents in Benghazi and Cairo were reportedly the work of protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
In his remarks, Obama said: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence, none.”
Romney’s criticism appeared limited to an initial statement issued the previous day by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. He said it was “akin to an apology,” and that said as president, Obama bears responsibility for it. “They clearly sent mixed messages for the world,” he said of the administration.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a warning to all Americans in Cairo early Tuesday morning that it expected there would be demonstrations in the general neighborhood of the embassy. When it became clear later in the day that there would be a demonstration outside the embassy, it issued the statement referenced by Romney.
That statement said that the embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” The statement was issued before protesters breached the embassy.
Stevens is the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in an attack since 1979, when Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in Afghanistan. The State Department identified one of the other Americans killed Tuesday as Sean Smith, a foreign service information management officer. The identities of the others were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The White House said Obama was informed Tuesday night that Stevens was not accounted for and was notified Wednesday morning that he had been killed.
In a written statement earlier Wednesday, Obama called Stevens a “courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”
The four Americans, he said, “exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe.”
U.S. officials said some 50 Marines were being sent to Libya to reinforce security at U.S. diplomatic facilities in the aftermath of the attack.
The Marines are members of an elite group known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, whose role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to reinforce security at U.S. embassies. They operate worldwide.
The officials who disclosed the plan to send the Marines spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Following his Rose Garden remarks, Obama went to the State Department to visit employees and offer support. The White House said Obama wanted to express solidarity with U.S. diplomats and thank them for their service.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has a long-scheduled meeting Wednesday morning to discuss Libya and diplomats said the United States is seeking a council statement on the attack. U.N. Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman, a former American diplomat and close friend of Stevens’, is scheduled to brief the council on Libya.
Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and had already served two tours in Libya, including running the office in Benghazi during the revolt against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He was confirmed as ambassador to Libya by the Senate earlier this year.
His State Department biography, posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy to Libya, says he “considers himself fortunate to participate in this incredible period of change and hope for Libya.”
Clinton said Stevens had a “passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people.”
He “risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation. He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started,” she said.
Stevens joined the Foreign Service in 1991 and spent his early State Department career at posts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Israel. After working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Stevens was posted to Libya as deputy chief of mission.
In that post, Stevens wrote several confidential cables back to Washington, describing Gadhafi’s bizarre behavior. During the 2011 revolt against Gadhafi, he was one of the last American diplomats to stay in Tripoli and after the embassy was closed, he was appointed to head the U.S. liaison office to the Transitional National Council.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report.