Central Intelligence Agency officers in Benghazi, Libya, sent a security team to the U.S. diplomatic mission there less than 25 minutes after the post was attacked by Islamic militants, according to a timeline provided by a senior U.S. intelligence official.
The first call reporting the Sept. 11 attack came into the CIA base in an annex to the mission in Benghazi at around 9:40 p.m., said the official, who spoke last night on condition of anonymity because intelligence reports are classified.
Charges that the Obama administration failed to respond to requests for additional security in Benghazi and at the American Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, have grown harsher and become part of the Republican campaign to unseat President Barack Obama, and the CIA has suffered collateral damage from the allegations.
Responding to accusations aired on Fox News and picked up elsewhere that officials in Washington had refused to approve military strikes or rescue efforts, the official said no one in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA or any other organization second-guessed decisions made in Benghazi, and there were no orders to anyone providing support to stand down.
The intelligence officers at the annex in Benghazi responded to the situation as quickly and as effectively as possible in the face of heavy enemy fire, the official said. In particular, the security officers, one of whom was killed, were genuine heroes, the official said.
The officers attempted to rally local support to reinforce militiamen hired to guard the compound and obtain heavier weapons, and when they were unable to do so within minutes, they still risked their lives by going to the aid of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the main part of the compound, the official said.
Contradicting other reports and allegations, the official said everyone from the senior officers in Libya to the top officials in Washington were fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could.
The Pentagon “took swift action,” spokesman George Little told reporters today. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the deployment of forces, including two Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, a special operations unit based in Central Europe and and U.S.-based contingent of troops, Little said.
“It takes time for troops to be organized, to be transported, to understand what they may be called upon to do,” Little said at the Pentagon, adding, “They simply were not able to arrive in time.”
In the end, a Marine unit was sent to protect the U.S. embassy in Tripoli after the attacks while the other forces got as far as the U.S. base in Sigonella, Italy, he said. The Naval Air Station at Sigonella in Sicily is 470 miles (756 kilometers) by air from Benghazi.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are arriving in Tunisia to assist in the interrogation of a Tunisian suspected of involvement in the Benghazi attack, Tunisia’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Hedi Ben Abbes said today.
The FBI team was en route to Tunis, the capital, after a Tunisian magistrate investigating suspected radical Ali Ani al-Harzi agreed to let the U.S. provide its “techniques and expertise” for interrogating terror suspects, Ben Abbes, the no. 2 official at foreign ministry, said in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.
Officials in Washington monitored the events in Benghazi from message traffic and video shot by an unarmed aerial drone that was diverted from another mission elsewhere in Libya and arrived over the compound at 11:11 p.m., the intelligence official said.
By 11:30 p.m., all U.S. personnel except for Stevens, who was missing, left the mission under fire for the annex about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) away, the official said. For the next 90 minutes, the annex was hit by sporadic small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade rounds. The security team returned fire, and the attackers dispersed at about 1 a.m., according to the timeline the official provided.
At about the same time, the official said, a team of additional security personnel from the embassy in Tripoli, including two members of the U.S. military, landed at the Benghazi airport, where they began negotiating for transportation into town. A second official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said the reinforcements also had difficulty getting Libyan officials’ permission to leave the airport grounds.
When they learned that Stevens was missing and that the attack on the annex had subsided, the group from Tripoli focused on locating the ambassador and trying to secure information on the security situation at the Benghazi Medical Centre. Local Libyans had taken Stevens to the hospital, which was where a doctor later interviewed by Bloomberg News pronounced the ambassador dead.
Still in the pre-dawn darkness, the U.S. security team at the airport finally secured transportation and an armed escort. Having learned that Stevens was almost certainly dead and that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain, they headed to the annex to help evacuate remaining personnel there, according to the timeline provided by the senior official.
The two security officers who had been at the mission when the first attack started almost eight hours earlier took up positions on the annex’s roof and were killed by mortar fire, the official said, although that attack lasted only 11 minutes.
Finally, about an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan security force arrived at the annex and began helping evacuate about 30 Americans to the airport, along with the bodies of Stevens and the other three Americans who were killed.