WASHINGTON – CIA security officers went to the aid of State Department staff less than 25 minutes after they got the first call for help during the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday, as they laid out a detailed timeline of the CIA's immediate response to the attack from its annex less than a mile from the diplomatic mission.
The attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by what is now suspected to be a group of al-Qaida-linked militants killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The timeline was offered just days before the presidential election in a clear effort to refute recent news reports that said the CIA told its personnel to "stand down" rather than go to the consulate to help repel the attackers. Fox News reported that when CIA officers at the annex called higher-ups to tell them the consulate was under fire, they were twice told to "stand down." The CIA publicly denied the report.
The intelligence officials told reporters Thursday that when the CIA annex received a call about the assault, about half a 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. The officials said that at no point was the team told to wait.
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 consulate attack has become a political issue in Washington, with Republicans questioning the security at the consulate, the intelligence on militant groups in North Africa and the Obama administration's response in the days after the attack. Republicans also have questioned whether enough military and other support was requested and received. And presidential candidate Mitt Romney has used the attack as a sign of what he says is President Barack Obama's weak leadership overseas.
In the first days after the attack, various administration officials linked the Benghazi incident to the simultaneous protests around the Muslim world over an American-made film that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad. Only later did they publicly attribute it to militants, possibly linked to al-Qaida, and acknowledged it was distinct from the film protests. The changing explanations have led to suspicions that the administration didn't want to acknowledge a terror attack on U.S. personnel so close to the Nov. 6 election, a charge Obama has strongly denied.
On Thursday, intelligence officials said they had early information that the attackers had ties to al-Qaida-linked groups, but did not make it public immediately because it was based on classified intelligence. And they said the early public comments about the attack and its genesis were cautious and limited, as they routinely are in such incidents.
They added that while intelligence officials indicated early on that extremists were involved in the assault, only later were officials able to confirm that the attack was not generated by a protest over the film.
The Associated Press has reported that the CIA station chief in Tripoli and a State Department official sent word to Washington during the attack citing eyewitnesses as saying it was not a film protest, but the planned work of armed militants.
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 base at the nearby 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 that 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.
U.S. officials have said there were two unarmed drones in the area at various points of the night. One was overhead in Libya and moved to the area quickly and another was called in at a later point to provide surveillance.