WASHINGTON — The gunfire at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had barely ceased when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seriously mischaracterized what had happened in a statement accusing President Barack Obama of "disgraceful" handling of violence there and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

"The Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," Romney said in a statement first emailed to reporters at 10:09 p.m. Eastern time, under the condition it not be published until midnight.

In fact, neither a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day nor a later statement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered sympathy for attackers. The statement from the Cairo Embassy had condemned anti-Muslim religious incitement before the embassy walls were breached. In her statement, issued minutes before Romney's, Clinton had offered the administration's first response to the violence in Libya, explicitly condemning the attack there and confirming the death of a State Department official.

"I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today," Clinton said in a written statement received by The Associated Press at 10:08 p.m. "As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss."

Then, at 10:24 p.m., a Romney spokeswoman lifted the release restriction on the Republican's statement, and it was widely published.

At the time, the Romney campaign did not know that the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, had been killed, nor did the Obama administration. Libyans told American officials around midnight that the ambassador had died, but Americans were unable to confirm his identity until hours later.

"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens," Obama said in his first statement at 7:21 a.m. Wednesday, the next morning.

A closer look at the day's events and rhetoric:

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Tuesday, Sept. 11, Cairo, Egypt

Early Tuesday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo got word that demonstrators, angry about an anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S., were gathering in the streets. It issued a safety warning to Americans: Stay out of the streets.

As the situation became increasingly tense_ but while the crowd was still peaceful – the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement condemning what it called "religious incitement" as it worked to calm the tensions.

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo 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 embassy said at 6:18 a.m. EDT, shortly after noon Cairo time.

That's the statement that Romney referred to as the administration's "first response." By Wednesday morning, the Republican nominee was at a podium in Jacksonville, Fla., saying that statement "appeared to be an apology for American principles." It's a theme Romney has hammered against Obama throughout his presidential campaign, including in his campaign book, "No Apology."

But the embassy's condemnation of religious incitement hardly amounted to an apology.

Romney also said Wednesday that the Cairo Embassy "put out a statement after their grounds had been breached. Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach."

Not quite. Almost five hours after the Cairo Embassy issued its statement – at about 11:15 a.m. EDT – Associated Press images show protesters atop the Cairo Embassy's walls. At about 11:33 a.m. EDT, the American flag there had come down.

The embassy did use its Twitter account to say, at about 8 p.m. EDT, that "this morning's condemnation ... still stands." The tweet was later deleted.

The Obama administration later backed away from the embassy's statement entirely. "That statement was not coordinated with Washington. It was taken down," a senior administration official said.

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Tuesday, Sept. 11, Benghazi, Libya

As the protests in Cairo were winding down, the situation in Benghazi was getting worse. At about 4:15 p.m. EDT, senior administration officials said, attackers had entered the compound, firing at officials and setting the consulate's main building on fire. Three Americans were trapped inside, including Stevens, the ambassador. They became separated from each other; one made it out before going back inside to search for the others.

No one could find Stevens.

They took refuge in a second, smaller building around 4:45 p.m. EDT. More shooting started at 5 p.m., and two additional U.S. personnel were killed. Two more were wounded. It wasn't until 8:30 p.m. EDT that Libyan security forces helped the Americans regain control of the compound. Still, no one knew where Stevens was.

That was less than two hours before Romney's initial 10:10 p.m. statement.

At midnight, Libyans told American officials that Stevens was dead. But they had to wait until dawn to identify him.

At 10:43 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Obama was standing in the White House's Rose Garden, offering a tribute.

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, Jacksonville, Fla.

Just minutes before Obama appeared in the Rose Garden, Romney spoke to reporters at a hastily arranged news conference at his Jacksonville campaign office, walking to the podium at about 10:15 a.m. What was supposed to be a small rally was abruptly turned into a statement of condolence for the deaths in Libya – and a doubling down on the previous night's criticism of Obama.

Romney was pressed about whether he would have made his Tuesday night statement if he'd had complete information about the situation in Benghazi.

"I'm not going to take hypotheticals about what would have been known what and so forth," Romney said. "I – we responded last night to the events that happened in Egypt."

But his statement had referenced both countries, referring to "attacks on our diplomatic missions."

In Washington, Republican foreign policy veterans called Romney's initial statement premature and rushed, with limited facts and an incomplete understanding of what was happening in Egypt and Libya. Romney's team also was unclear about the timeline of when the Obama administration weighed in.

One Republican official advising Romney's campaign on foreign policy and national security issues painted a picture of a Romney campaign more focused on ensuring Romney's evening statement made it into morning news stories than on waiting for details about what had happened.

This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney's campaign, said that as word of violence spread, campaign aides late Tuesday watched tweets coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that were criticizing the filmmaker rather than condemning the attackers, and saw an opportunity to criticize Obama.

It wasn't until Wednesday morning, when the U.S. confirmed the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, that Romney's team recognized the severity of the situation – and that, the night before, it had opened itself up to criticism for politicizing a diplomatic crisis.

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Associated Press writers Steve Negus in Cairo and Philip Elliott and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • President Barack Obama

    "I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives. I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants. On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya's transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss. The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward."

  • Mitt Romney

    "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo 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 read. "The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached, protesters were inside the grounds," said Romney at his press conference. "They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it's a -- a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response to the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America's values is never the right course." The embassy's statement, however, came before the protests -- not after, as Romney claimed. The embassy did subsequently tweet that it stood by its condemnation of the video, but it also condemned the attacks. When reporters pointed out that the White House disavowed the Cairo embassy's statement, Romney said he agreed with that response. He still said, however, that the embassy was part of Obama's administration, and therefore the president was ultimately responsible. "It's their administration," said Romney. "Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come his mouth but also from the words of his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration, and the embassy is the administration."

  • Secretary Of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

    "It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the death of four American personnel in Benghazi, Libya, yesterday. Among them were United States Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. We are still making next of kin notifications for the other two individuals. Our hearts go out to all their families and colleagues. A 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Stevens died last night from injuries he sustained in the attack on our office in Benghazi. I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago. He spoke eloquently about his passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people. This assignment was only the latest in his more than two decades of dedication to advancing closer ties with the people of the Middle East and North Africa, which began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi. 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. Chris was committed to advancing America's values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger. Sean Smith was a husband and a father of two, who joined the Department ten years ago. Like Chris, Sean was one of our best. Prior to arriving in Benghazi, he served in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and most recently The Hague. All the Americans we lost in yesterday's attacks made the ultimate sacrifice. We condemn this vicious and violent attack that took their lives, which they had committed to helping the Libyan people reach for a better future. America's diplomats and development experts stand on the front lines every day for our country. We are honored by the service of each and every one of them."

  • Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.)

    "Less than 24 hours after our nation remembered the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans find their sovereign soil attacked again as more American lives are lost at the hands of intolerant, barbaric, radical Muslims. United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Smith, and several embassy staff were murdered late yesterday when suspected religious extremists stormed the United States Consulate in Benghazi. This morning, my condolences and prayers go out to the families of the victims. Americans need to question whether the deaths of these innocent patriots could have been avoided. The Obama Administration touted the Arab Spring as an awakening of freedom, which we now see is a nightmare of Islamism. Even more concerning, is the initial response to these attacks last night from the embassy officials of the Obama Administration was to apologize for a Facebook video that supposedly hurt Muslim feelings. President Obama's policy of appeasement towards the Islamic world has manifested itself into a specter of unconscionable hatred. How anyone can believe this President is strong on national security and foreign policy is beyond my comprehension. President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis, as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House."

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

    "We learned yesterday, and are receiving reports this morning, of the attacks against the United States Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. "In Benghazi our Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in service to our nation. Our thoughts and sympathy today are with the families of these brave Americans. "These attacks remind us of the sacrifices made on a daily basis by foreign service officers, diplomatic security personnel, and our Marine Security Guards. "I join my colleagues in strongly condemning the murder of these innocent Americans. And I support employing every available tool at our disposal to ensure the safety of Americans overseas and to hunt down those responsible for these attacks. "Yesterday we commemorated the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, and today we are reminded that brave Americans serve us every day at the risk of their own lives. We honor the Americans we lost in Libya, and we will stand united in our response. "Among the things we can all agree on in Washington is that attacks on the U.S. and its representatives will be met with resolve, and that America's presence and defense of our national interests across the globe will not be deterred by the acts of violent extremists."

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

    "I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. I join President Obama in condemning these senseless acts of violence. And my thoughts are with the families of those who were killed in this horrific attack. "It is too often forgotten that American diplomats risk their lives on a daily basis. Our diplomatic corps is filled with admirable and dedicated public servants. And the four Americans who lost their lives yesterday exemplified the courage and sacrifice that happens every day at diplomatic posts across the globe. "I have traveled to many of America's embassies abroad, and I have always been impressed by and grateful for the leadership and commitment of America's ambassadors and State Department personnel. Ambassador Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who spent his life giving of his time and his talents to promote democracy and American values. "I support President Obama's directive to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the world, and to provide whatever resources necessary to keep our personnel in Libya safe. And I will continue to the monitor the situation as we learn more about these terrible events."

  • Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

    "I join with President Obama and other Americans in condemning these horrible acts against our public servants, and offer my deepest condolences to the families that lost loved ones. "At at a time when we should be standing together against these senseless acts of violence, Mitt Romney offered an atrocious political response that undermines our unity in the face of threats to Americans around the world."

  • Elizabeth Warren

    "This senseless attack on our consulate in Libya is contemptible. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives were lost. Right now, we should all honor the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans who gave their lives in the service of our country."

  • Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

    U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today released the following joint statement regarding the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya yesterday. "We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. "Chris was one of America's finest and bravest diplomats, and also someone we considered a friend. In the midst of last year's uprising in Libya, Chris traveled at great personal risk to Benghazi to represent the country he loved as the U.S. envoy to the Libyan opposition. He advanced American interests and values in Libya and stood with the Libyan people throughout their struggle for freedom and during the challenging times that followed. His death at the hands of extremists is a tragic and awful loss for the people of both the United States and Libya. "There is still much we do not know about what happened in Benghazi yesterday. What is clear, however, is that the attackers must be apprehended and punished. 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 U.S. diplomats are protected. We have confidence that our own government will provide all necessary assistance to this end. "Yesterday's attack is a tragic and terrible reminder that - despite the hopes of the Arab Spring - the forces of violent extremism in the Middle East are far from defeated, and that the revolutions inspired by millions of people who dream of freedom and democracy can still be hijacked by small groups of violent extremists who are eager to kill to advance their evil ideology. "Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists. "To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives. In short, it would be a betrayal of our own best ideals as Americans and our own enduring interest in using our great influence to support the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East who want to be free from the kinds of murderers and terrorists who killed our people yesterday in Benghazi."

  • Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

  • Richard Burr (R-N.C.)

  • Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)

  • Mark Udall

  • Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

  • Congressman Joe Baca

  • Rep. Keith Ellison

  • Gregory Meeks

  • John Barrow

  • Steny Hoyer

  • Ed Markey

  • Mike Michaud

  • Jeff Fortenberry

  • Kenny Marchant

  • Tom Price

  • Eric Cantor

  • Mike Pence

  • Peter Roskam

  • Senator Roy Blunt

  • John Shimkus

  • Speaker John Boehner

  • Gregg Harper

  • Pete Hoekstra

  • RepKevinBrady

  • Randy Forbes

  • Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

  • Michael Burgess, MD

  • U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar

  • Rep. Adam Smith

  • Steve Israel

  • Albio Sires

  • Joe Barton

  • Chris Coons

    "I join President Obama, Secretary Clinton and my colleagues in the Senate in strongly condemning the horrific attack targeting American U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "My heart goes out to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other brave Americans who were killed in this senseless act of violence. They were committed public servants who courageously risked theirlives supporting the Libyan people and political transition. The service ofthese brave Americans epitomizes the best of our values, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten."

  • Glenn Nye

  • Mike Doyle

  • Senator John Boozman

  • Darrell Issa

  • Frank Pallone

  • Rep. Pete King

  • Jeff Flake