Two U.S. officials tell Eli Lake that the State Department never requested military backup the night of the attack.
On the night of the 9/11 anniversary assault at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Americans defending the compound and a nearby CIA annex were severely outmanned. Nonetheless, the State Department never requested military backup that evening, two senior U.S. officials familiar with the details of military planning tell The Daily Beast.
Libyan security stands guard at the gate of the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 15, 2012 while investigators work inside. (Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo)
In its seventh week, discussion about what happened in Benghazi has begun to focus on why military teams in the region did not respond to the assault on the U.S. mission and the nearby CIA annex. The only security backup that did arrive that evening were former special-operations soldiers under the command of the CIA—one from the nearby annex and another Quick Reaction Force from Tripoli. On Friday, Fox News reported that requests from CIA officers for air support on the evening of the attacks were rejected. (The Daily Beast was not able to confirm that those requests were made, though no U.S. official contacted for this story directly refuted the claim either.)
It’s unlikely any outside military team could have arrived in Benghazi quickly enough to save Ambassador Chris Stevens or his colleague Sean Smith, both of whom died from smoke inhalation after a band of more than 100 men overran the U.S. mission at around 9:30 p.m. that evening and set the buildings inside ablaze.
But military backup may have made a difference at around five the following morning, when a second wave of attackers assaulted the CIA annex where embassy personnel had taken refuge. It was during this second wave of attacks that two ex-SEALs working for the CIA’s security teams—Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods—were killed in a mortar strike.
Normally it would be the job of the U.S. ambassador on location to request a military response. But Stevens likely died in the first two hours of the attack. The responsibility for requesting military backup would then have fallen to the deputy chief of mission at Benghazi or officials at the State Department in Washington.
“The State Department is responsible for assessing security at its diplomatic installations and for requesting support from other government agencies if they need it,” a senior U.S. Defense official said. “There was no request from the Department of State to intervene militarily on the night of the attack.”
The president, however, would have the final say as to whether or not to send in the military. By 11 p.m. Benghazi time, 90 minutes after the assault began on the U.S. mission, Obama met with the National Security Council to discuss the attack. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said the president “ordered Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey to begin moving assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies” at that meeting.
According to the senior Defense Department official, those assets included a special operations team from central Europe to be staged at the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy and other small teams of Marines deployed at U.S. Naval bases known as FAST platoons. (These details were first reported by Fox News.) By the time the special operations team and the Marines were prepared to go forward with the rescue mission, however, the first wave of the attack was over.
Philippe Reines, a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said, “I think what’s getting lost about that night is that four Americans were killed and dozens more were in harm’s way … Everyone in the U.S. government and at every agency immediately had the exact same goal of finding a way to help them.”
“The State Department is responsible for assessing security at its diplomatic installations and for requesting support from other government agencies if they need it.”
George Little, the chief spokesman for the Pentagon, said Wednesday, “I’m not going to get into the specifics of what we discussed with our State Department partners on the night of the attack. The fact of the matter is that all of us wanted to find a way to respond to the unfolding situation in Benghazi. Both the State Department and the Department of Defense acted quickly to identify response options and to start moving out quickly.”
Panetta said last week that he and the military’s leadership did not have enough “real-time information about what’s taking place” to send in reinforcement that evening. However, three U.S. Defense and intelligence officials confirm to The Daily Beast that a surveillance drone was at the scene of the attack while personnel were evacuated from the diplomatic compound to the CIA annex—though the drone was not present at the beginning of the attack.
The Pentagon did eventually play one role in the aftermath: when personnel from the U.S. mission and CIA annex were at the airport, the Defense Department transported them from Benghazi to Tripoli.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of a House oversight subcommittee investigating the Benghazi attacks, told The Daily Beast that General Carter Ham, the outgoing U.S. commander of Africa Command, “told me directly that he had no directive to engage in the fight in Benghazi.” Spokesmen from Africa Command declined to comment for this story.