Today pushback leaks from “senior US intelligence officials” arrived offering a new version of events which directly contradicts previously-reported accounts on key damaging details.
A major news agency reported:
Just days before the presidential election, U.S. officials are striking back at allegations they failed to respond quickly or efficiently against the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, detailing for the first time a broad CIA rescue effort.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday that CIA security officers went to the aid of State Department staff less than 25 minutes after they got the first call for help from the consulate, which was less than a mile from a CIA annex. The detailed timeline provides the first in-depth look at how deeply the CIA was involved in the rescue attempt, and it comes amid persistent questions about whether the Obama administration responded as quickly and effectively as it could to the siege. …
The intelligence officials told reporters Thursday that when the CIA annex received a call about the assault, about a half dozen members of a CIA security team tried to get heavy weapons and other assistance from the Libyans. But when the Libyans failed to respond, the security team, which routinely carries small arms, went ahead with the rescue attempt. At no point was the team told to wait, the officials said.
Instead, they said the often outmanned and outgunned team members made all the key decisions on the ground, with no second-guessing from senior officials monitoring the situation from afar.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide intelligence information publicly. …
The officials’ description Thursday of the attack provided details about a second CIA security team in Tripoli that quickly chartered a plane and flew to Benghazi but got stuck at the airport. By then, however, the first team had gotten the State Department staff out of the consulate and back to the CIA annex.
As the events were unfolding, the Pentagon began to move special operations forces from Europe to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. U.S. aircraft routinely fly in and out of Sigonella and there are also fighter jets based in Aviano, Italy. But while the U.S. military was at a heightened state of alert because of 9/11, there were no American forces poised and ready to move immediately into Benghazi when the attack began.
The Pentagon would not send forces or aircraft into Libya — a sovereign nation — without a request from the State Department and the knowledge or consent of the host country. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the information coming in was too jumbled to risk U.S. troops.
According to the detailed timeline senior officials laid out Thursday, the first call to the CIA base came in at about 9:40 p.m., and less than 25 minutes later about the team headed to the consulate. En route they tried to get additional assistance, including some heavier weapons, but were unable to get much aid from the Libyan militias.
The team finally got to the consulate, which was engulfed in heavy diesel smoke and flames, and they went in to get the consulate staff out. By 11:30 p.m., all of the U.S. personnel, except Stevens, left and drove back to the annex, with some taking fire from militants along the way.
By that time, one of the Defense Department’s unarmed Predator drones had arrived to provide overhead surveillance.
At the CIA base, militants continued the attack, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans returned fire, and after about 90 minutes, or around 1 a.m., it subsided.
Around that time, the second CIA team, which numbered about six and included two military members, arrived at the airport, where they tried to figure out where Stevens was and get transportation and added security to find him.
Intelligence officials said that after several hours, the team was finally able to get Libyan vehicles and armed escorts, but by then had learned that the ambassador was probably dead and the security situation at the hospital was troublesome. The State Department has said a department computer expert, Sean Smith, also was killed.
The second CIA team headed to the annex, and arrived after 5 a.m., just before the base came under attack again.
According to officials, militants fired mortar rounds at the building, killing two of the security officers who were returning fire. The mortar attack lasted just 11 minutes.
And less than an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan military unit arrived and was able to take the U.S. personnel to the airport.
The LA Times version makes it clear that today’s unofficial release was intended specifically to contradict Fox News’ reporting of events.
At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could,” a senior intelligence official said in a statement. “There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.” …
Fox News asserted in a story last week that CIA managers had ordered agency security officers to “stand down” and remain in their own facility, known as the Annex, when the attack on the diplomatic compound began about 9:40 p.m. and that there was an hour delay before officers disobeyed orders and went to help repel the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and State Department officer Sean Smith.
Among those who rushed to help was Tyrone Woods, a former Navy SEAL who was part of the CIA security team and who later died in the attacks.
The Fox story also asserted that the CIA “chain of command” refused to pass along requests from its officers for military aid and that special operations forces in nearby Sicily could have been sent to help but were not. Intelligence and Pentagon officials strenuously denied that Thursday.
They insisted there was no viable military option to disrupt what amounted to a series of sporadic attacks in a crowded city full of people sympathetic to the U.S. There were no armed drones in the region and airstrikes were not called for, officials said.
“Let’s say we were able to get an aircraft there. Do you go in and start strafing a populated area without knowing where friend or foe is?” a senior Defense official asked. “If you did that, you could kill the very people you are trying to help.”
A special operations team was sent to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, but the team arrived after the attack ended, said the senior Defense official, who would not be quoted by name discussing potentially classified information.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta learned of the attack shortly after it began, about 4:30 p.m Eastern time, Defense officials said, and discussed it in a previously scheduled meeting with the president. Obama ordered him to pursue whatever options were feasible, a Defense official said.
Panetta “ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Shortly after 11 p.m. a surveillance drone had arrived from elsewhere in Libya â€” about an hour after it was requested, officials said. But the video feed was not seen by the president, contrary to some news reports. And the feed did not offer analysts a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground, officials said.
After the CIA team arrived at the compound, “over the next 25 minutes, team members approach the compound, attempt to secure heavy weapons [from Libyans], and make their way onto the compound itself in the face of enemy fire,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The senior intelligence official disclosed that the CIA also sent a second six-member team from Tripoli on a chartered plane to help repel the attack. The team included Glen Doherty, another former SEAL, who was later killed when attackers fired mortar rounds at the CIA Annex.
The team arrived around midnight but got bogged down at the airport. Ultimately, it learned that “the ambassador was almost certainly dead” and headed to the agency facility “to assist with the evacuation,” the official said.
It arrived with Libyan support at the Annex at 5:15 a.m., just before mortar rounds began to strike. Woods and Doherty were killed as they fired on militants from the roof. The mortar attack lasted 11 minutes, the official said.
The drone overhead was not armed. Even if it had been, there were no viable targets, officials said.