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Military officers disagree that squad could have saved lives in Benghazi, transcipts show

Timeline: From ‘we're under attack' to evacuation

FIRST WORD

—9:40 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11: A large group of men rush into the diplomatic compound, firing guns and setting fires. A diplomatic security officer hustles visiting Ambassador Chris Stevens and computer specialist Sean Smith into a safe room in one of the residences.

The security officers and the ambassador use cellphones to call a CIA post about a mile away and the embassy in Tripoli. The alert — “We're under attack” — is passed to the embassy's defense attache and other officers who were there to help train and equip Libyan forces. The officers begin relaying the information up their chain of command, putting out word that U.S. aircraft may be needed for an evacuation and reaching out to Libyan forces for help.

—10:15 p.m.: In Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of the military's joint Africa Command, in the same time zone as Libya, Rear Adm. Charles “Joe” Leidig Jr., is awakened by the phone: “I rolled over and got a report that there had been protesters, and they had overrun the facility in Benghazi, but that the ambassador was in a safe room and was safe.”

Until that moment, Leidig and others at AFRICOM didn't know there was a temporary diplomatic post in Benghazi, or a secret CIA facility, or that the ambassador was visiting the city that night.

—10:30 p.m.: Gen. Carter Ham, then head of AFRICOM, gets word of the attack while visiting the Pentagon. It's about 4:30 p.m. in Washington. He walks down the hall to tell Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they head upstairs to alert Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Dempsey and Panetta inform President Barack Obama.

———

DEADLY FLAMES

—Until about 11:30 p.m.: The attack on the diplomatic post lasts about 45 minutes. Unable to break into the safe room, the attackers pour diesel fuel in the building and set its furniture afire. A security team from the CIA site, located about a mile away, arrives and helps repel the attackers.

The CIA and embassy security forces repeatedly try to rescue Stevens and Smith but are thwarted by blinding, noxious smoke. They discover Smith's body in the safe room but can't find the ambassador. Fearing the compound will again be overrun, the rest of the Americans — diplomatic security officers and CIA — flee by armored car to the CIA facility, sometimes referred to as the annex. They bring Smith's body with them.

—11: 10 p.m.: The military diverts an unarmed drone from elsewhere in Libya to Benghazi, but its indistinct nighttime video isn't much help.

———

A WARNING OVERLOOKED

—11:30 p.m.-1 a.m.: Soon after the group from the diplomatic post arrives, the secret CIA site also comes under sporadic fire from small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Security returns fire, and after 90 minutes it's over. But key military leaders don't know the CIA facility is under assault.

—Around midnight: The military hears conflicting reports about Stevens. Libyan leaders say the ambassador is alive and safe. Others say an American is at a hospital in Benghazi. This raises fears that Stevens may be held hostage by the militia controlling that hospital.

—Shortly after midnight: A six-man U.S. security team, including two Special Forces members, takes off from Tripoli on a chartered flight to Benghazi. Their plan: Go to the hospital and find Stevens.

Meanwhile, in Washington, senior defense officials make plans to deploy military teams from Spain, Croatia and the United States. But it will take hours for them to prepare, take off and cover the distance to Libya. (In the end, only the anti-terror team from Spain will complete the journey, arriving in Tripoli after the Americans have been evacuated.)

—1:30 a.m. Wednesday: The security team lands in Benghazi to look for the ambassador, but the members are detained at the airport by Libyan militia.

—2 a.m.: A military officer in Tripoli, who has been relaying updates to the Africa command center, hears word that some Americans in Benghazi have been wounded, but no details. He keeps pressing for a plane for evacuation. He's told no U.S. plane will be available for hours.

Embassy and military officials, fearing the embassy in Tripoli could be targeted for a terror attack, decide to evacuate the staff to a more secure, classified location at dawn. Following State Department policy, staffers begin burning documents and smash computer hard drives with an ax.

———

SECOND DEADLY ATTACK

—Before dawn, Wednesday, Sept. 12: The security team is still at the Benghazi airport. One holdup: Libyan officials insist those in uniform change into civilian clothes. The team gets word that Stevens is believed to be dead, his body at a hospital. They change plans and, finally allowed to leave, head for the CIA compound to help defend and evacuate it. They arrive just before a deadly mortar attack begins.

—5:15 a.m.: Mortar fire hits the CIA roof, killing security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Other Americans are seriously injured. Ham says in hindsight that the 11-minute assault looked like a carefully targeted hit by well-trained militants.

—Around 6 a.m.: A Libyan military unit arrives to escort the Americans from the CIA post to the Benghazi airport for evacuation to Tripoli, aboard a Libyan plane. In Tripoli, the U.S. Embassy is in the midst of evacuating about three dozen people with the help of Defense Department personnel.

—Before 6:30 a.m.: After helping secure and then evacuate the embassy in Tripoli, Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, the leader of a four-man special operations group, decides his team should go help in Benghazi. He calls the special operations command for Africa to inform them, and is ordered not to go, but to remain in place safeguarding U.S. personnel in Tripoli.

Gibson later testifies that his flight would have arrived in Benghazi too late to help, and would have crossed paths with a plane bringing the wounded back to Tripoli.

—7:40 a.m.: The first evacuation plane, carrying the wounded, takes off from Benghazi. They are met at the Tripoli airport by the special ops team's medic, who is credited with saving one man's life.

—10 a.m.: A plane carrying the rest of the U.S. personnel, and the bodies of the four Americans who were killed, takes off from Benghazi for Tripoli.

—2:15 p.m.: A U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane sent from Germany arrives in Tripoli, ready to evacuate the Americans. Five hours later, the evacuees and the remains of the victims leave Libya.

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By The Associated Press
Thursday, July 10, 2014, 8:48 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — The testimony of nine military officers undermines contentions by Republican lawmakers that a “stand-down order” held back military assets that could have saved the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed at a diplomatic outpost and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

The “stand-down” theory centers on a Special Operations team of four — a detachment leader, a medic, a communications expert and a weapon operator with his foot in a cast — who were stopped from flying from Tripoli to Benghazi once the attacks of Sept. 11-12, 2012, had ended. Instead, they were instructed to help protect and care for those being evacuated from Benghazi and from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

The senior military officer who issued the instruction to “remain in place” and the detachment leader who received it said it was the right decision and has been widely mischaracterized. The order was to remain in Tripoli and protect about three dozen embassy personnel rather than fly to Benghazi, about 600 miles away, where all Americans there would have been evacuated. The medic is credited with saving the life of an evacuee from the attacks.

Transcripts of hours of closed-door interviews with the military leaders by the House Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform committees were made public on Wednesday. The Associated Press had reviewed the material before its release.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight panel, has suggested Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the order, though as secretary of State at the time, she was not in the military chain of command.

Despite lingering public confusion over many events that night, the testimony shows military leaders largely in agreement over how they responded to the attacks.

The initial Sept. 11 assault on the diplomatic post, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and another American, prompted immediate action in Benghazi and in Tripoli. Though not under any known additional threat, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, was evacuated early in the morning of Sept. 12, its sensitive information and computer hard drives destroyed. Diplomats and military officials left in armored vehicles for a classified site several miles away. Upon arrival there, the head of a small detachment entrusted with training Libyan special forces told his higher-ups he wanted to take his four-member team to Benghazi.

Military officials differ on when that telephone conversation took place, but they agree that no help could have arrived in Benghazi in time. They put the call somewhere between 5:05 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. local time. It would take about 90 minutes to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi. The next U.S.-chartered plane to make the trip left at 6:49 a.m., meaning it could have arrived shortly before 9 a.m., nearly four hours after the second, 11-minute battle at the CIA facility ended about 5:25 a.m.

Republicans investigating Benghazi have clashed over whether military superiors, in effect, ordered the team to stand down. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the Armed Services Committee chairman, has cited previous testimony from military officers that ordering the foursome to stay in Tripoli and protect embassy personnel there didn't amount to “standing down.”

Others, such as Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, have said a stand- down order was given.

“We had proximity, we had capability, we had four individuals in Libya armed, ready to go, dressed, about to get into the car to go in the airport to go help their fellow countrymen who were dying and being killed and under attack in Benghazi, and they were told to stand down,” Chaffetz said more than a year ago. “That's as sickening and depressing and disgusting as anything I have seen. That is not the American way.”

The Special Operations detachment leader's name is omitted from the testimony transcript, but he has been identified as Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson. More than 112 years later, Gibson, who is now a colonel, agreed that staying in Tripoli was the best decision.

 

 
 


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