CIA officers who testified privately to Congress about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, revealed a disagreement among them about how quickly they could go help the besieged U.S. ambassador and others as well as a standing order for them to avoid violent encounters, according to a congressman and others who heard or were briefed on the testimony.
Complaints that the White House, Pentagon and State Department may not have done enough before and during the attack to save U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other men, along with accusations that it engaged in a cover-up after the attack, have continued to dog the Obama administration. One of the allegations was that U.S. officials told the CIA to “stand down” and not go to the aid of the embattled Americans — charges that top CIA and Defense and State Department officials have denied.
The testimony from the CIA officers and contractors who were in Libya that night bolster those denials but also shed light on what may have led to the delay of less than 30 minutes. None of those who testified said that a quicker response would have saved the lives of Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty.
The CIA officers in charge in Libya that day told Congress of a chaotic scramble to aid Stevens and others who were in the outpost when it was attacked by militants on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Those CIA leaders decided they and the security contractors working for them should wait before rushing from their annex into the violence roughly a mile away. They testified that they were trying to first gather intelligence and to round up Libyan militia allies armed with heavy weapons, according to the testimony by the CIA officers in charge, including both the head of the CIA security team and the CIA chief of the Benghazi base.
Some of the CIA security contractors, however, disagreed with their bosses and wanted to move more quickly.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican who chairs a House intelligence subcommittee that interviewed the employees, said he believes this disagreement was the source of allegations that the CIA ordered security personnel to “stand down” and not help the people inside the diplomatic mission, and perhaps was the source of accusations that the Obama administration failed to answer a call from the CIA security team for combat aircraft.
“The team leader knew he was on his own,” Westmoreland said. The congressman explained that the lack of air support was clear to all CIA employees working in Libya because of a 2011 CIA memorandum sent to employees after NATO forces ended their mission in support of the Libyan revolution.
“It basically told people in Benghazi…if you are attacked, you get your ‘package’ (the personnel they are charged with protecting) and you get out,” he said.
A senior intelligence official confirmed that the CIA officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the diplomats’ call for help by trying “to rally local support for the rescue effort and secure heavier weapons.” When it became “clear that this additional support could not be rapidly obtained,” the team moved toward the diplomatic compound. The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the attack publicly by name.
One of the contractors testified that he shouted repeatedly over the agency’s radio system to his CIA security boss that they should request combat aircraft to help. But the security chief explained to lawmakers that he ignored his subordinate’s demands, because he said he knew that no combat aircraft were available for such a mission, Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland said the CIA security contractors loaded into two vehicles, with weapons ready, the moment they heard the radio call for help from the diplomatic building. Some of the contractors wanted to rush to the U.S. compound roughly a mile away, and their agitation grew as they heard increasing panic when the diplomats reported the militants were setting the compound on fire.
The CIA team leader and the CIA chief who was based at the Benghazi annex told committee members that they were trying to gather Libyan allies and intelligence before racing to the embattled compound, worried that they might be sending their security team into an ambush with little or no backup, possibly creating more American casualties.
At least one of those security contractors — a former U.S. Army Ranger — was told to “wait” at least twice, and he argued with his security team leader, according to his testimony, related by Westmoreland. Westmoreland declined to share the names of the officers who testified because they are still CIA employees.
According to previous accounts by U.S. officials, the attacks began at approximately 9:40 p.m., and the CIA team arrived roughly 25 minutes into the attack.
None of those who testified would say they believed the ambassador or the others could have been saved had they arrived any faster, according to two officials, who also were briefed on the testimony. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed testimony publicly.
Westmoreland said they have also asked for more information from that night, including a record of CIA cellphone conversations to try to determine exactly when the first call for help came from the diplomatic compound and to narrow down when that help actually arrived.
When the seven CIA employees reached the diplomatic compound, they fought their way in and beat the militants back. They searched the compound buildings and found the five State Department security personnel who had taken shelter in various parts of the compound.
They found computer specialist Smith, dead from smoke inhalation, but couldn’t find Stevens and decided to fall back to the CIA annex, because the crowd was building outside again, Westmoreland and the other officials said.
Stevens was found in a safe room and taken by Libyan civilians to a nearby hospital but also died from smoke inhalation.
The lawmakers wanted to hear from the contractors about the account directly before a book the contractors have written is published.