The media don’t keep all this stuff straight for us, so it’s necessary to put this newest video from Fox News in context.
First, the proximate catalyst for the interview Bret Baier is airing with week with Kris (“Tanto”) Paronto, Mark (“Oz”) Geist, and John (“Tig”) Tiegen – contract security operatives for the CIA in Benghazi – is the publication of their new book with Mitchell Zuckoff, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. Thursday night saw only an excerpt from the program that will air in full on Friday evening.
Second, it has been reported before – repeatedly, in fact – that there was a delay in getting a security team from the CIA Annex in Benghazi to Ambassador Chris Stevens’s location at the U.S. Temporary Mission Facility (the TMF, often called the “consulate”) after the initial attack.
(Note: this entire post deals only with the initial attack from 9:40 to about 11:30 PM, in which the TMF came under attack and Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith were killed.)
The statement that members of the CIA Annex security team were told to delay proceeding to the TMF is not new information.
In fact, the narrative we hear from Bret Baier’s interview accords well with previous disclosures about the delay. It appears that Paronto, Geist, and Tiegen were some of the CIA responders who provided testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in 2013, which yielded this AP report from December. Its account dovetails almost perfectly with comments excerpted from the Baier interview:
The senior 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 the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Those CIA leaders decided they and their security contractor team should wait before rushing from their annex into the violence roughly a mile away. They said they were trying to first gather intelligence and round up Libyan militia allies armed with heavy weapons, according to the testimony by the CIA officers in charge.
Some CIA security contractors disagreed with their bosses and wanted to move more quickly. …
The CIA team leader and the CIA chief at the Benghazi annex told committee members that they were trying to gather Libyan allies and intelligence before racing into the fray, worried that they might be sending their security team into an ambush with little or no backup.
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 [Rep. Lynn] Westmoreland [R-GA].
In the Baier interview, Paronto says he was told twice to wait, and that Tiegen was also told to wait (i.e., making the third delay order) before moving to the TMF.
In this context, the third point to make is that members of HPSCI seem already to have accepted the interpretation that this set of delays was a natural series of events, dictated by the operational concerns of decision-makers, and was not unjustified or due to failures of command. Here is Rep. Westmoreland from the AP report:
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who heads a House intelligence subcommittee that interviewed the employees, said he believes this disagreement [between the security team and decision-makers] 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 the administration failed to answer a call from the CIA security team for combat aircraft.
And here is the conclusion from HPSCI’s January 2014 update on Benghazi:
The [CIA Annex security team] had necessary authority to depart for the TMF. Once prepared, officers engaged in a tactical discussion about the threat they faced at the TMF, and what weapons and external support to bring to TMF. During the discussion, there was a delay as the tactical situation was discussed, but HPSCI found no evidence that the team was ordered or directed to stand down.
The fourth point to make is, therefore, that there seems to be a political overlay to the interpretation of the delay on the night of 11 September 2012. The bottom line – just the facts – is that it took longer for the Annex security team to get to the TMF than it would have taken if the team had not been told – three times, according to Paronto and Tiegen – to wait. No one disagrees that that happened.
And it could certainly sound to the reasonable ear like a form of delay that might be questionable. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to say that an order to wait is not, strictly speaking, a “stand down” order, nor is it necessarily questionable. Taking the word of the higher-ups that there were good reasons for telling the team to wait is what investigators do, when they’re weighing what to think of such delays.
And what the contractors are doing, basically, is telling their side of the “team clash” described by Rep. Westmoreland to the AP reporter. The contractors are saying they didn’t think there was a good reason to wait.
In fact, in the interview with Baier, they provide the one detail that does not dovetail with what has been reported out from HPSCI. They state that they ultimately defied the order to wait, and set out for the TMF on their own, without having been given the go-ahead to do so.
After a delay of nearly 30 minutes, the security team headed to the besieged consulate without orders. They asked their CIA superiors to call for armed air support, which never came.
The HPSCI account certainly indicates that when the team moved out to go to the TMF, it had authorization. What we hear from the men in the Baier interview, by contrast, is that they did not.
One additional note on the different accounts of the CIA Annex team response. There is a persistently imprecise impression, in every account I have seen, of when the Annex team arrived at the TMF in relation to when it left the Annex. To my eye, this imprecision looks odd. Every account has it, and no one seems to have broken it down or officially accounted for it.
Here is the first detailed account of the CIA Annex team’s response, from an ABC report in November 2012, which was issued under the headline “New Detailed Account of Benghazi Attack Notes CIA’s Quick Response,” and was sourced to an unnamed “senior intelligence official.”
According to the new timeline the annex received a call at 9:40 p.m. local time that the consulate was coming under attack. A team of six CIA security operatives left the annex for the mission within 25 minutes of that call.
Over the next 25 minutes the security team approached the compound and attempted to secure heavy weapons. They encountered heavy enemy fire when they entered the consulate compound to locate Stevens and the other Americans who were there at the time of the attack.
This report would have had the team leaving the Annex about 10:05 PM and arriving at the TMF about 10:30 PM.
The AP report from December 2013 cites the most widely used timeline:
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.
This report would have the team arriving at the TMF around 10:05 PM – and therefore leaving the Annex sometime between 9:40 PM and 10:05 PM. Since the Annex and the TMF were only a mile apart, this timeline is at least feasible, especially if, as Paronto and Tiegen claim, the Annex security team was ready to deploy in five minutes.
But the commonly cited timeline differs from that November 2012 “detailed” account from the senior intelligence official.
Now, perhaps most curious of all, the timeline developed by HPSCI (reportedly based on testimony from the CIA team, among others) and published in January 2014:
A U.S. security team departed the Annex for the TMF. The security team tried to secure heavy weapons from militia members encountered along the route, and faced some resistance in getting to the TMF. Even in the face of those obstacles, the Annex security team arrived, under enemy fire, within 25 minutes of the beginning of the initial assault.
Yet the same timeline says the assault began at 9:42 PM. A visit to the clock tells us that the team would have arrived at the TMF around 10:07 PM – not that it would have departed the Annex at that time.
This is not a minor, miscellaneous detail. It lies at the heart of the question whether help from the Annex arrived as soon as it could have. Did the Annex security team leave the Annex at 10:05 PM, or did it arrive at the TMF at 10:05 PM? It cannot have done both. The available government conclusion that has been most intensively researched and vetted to date on this question – the HPSCI timeline – is weirdly ambiguous, in exactly the same terms of ambiguity observed from the earlier reporting filtered through the press.
How has this ambiguity managed to remain unresolved through so many months of investigation? Maybe the CIA team’s new book, 13 Hours, will shed light on that. According to Baier’s interviewees, the team was delayed for “nearly half an hour,” which would suggest a departure time from the Annex around the 10:05 PM mark.
That interval – which in the CIA operators’ narrative refers to the delays – might be the same length as the one cited repeatedly in earlier timelines. But it’s not the same interval as in those timelines. The official reconstruction to date has been awful darn specific that the “25 minutes” is what it took to get to the TMF, from the time the team departed the Annex.
Yet with all the specificity, the official reconstruction has come up with a timeline that has the team arriving at the same time it departed. It seems remarkable that no one on the HPSCI staff would notice the timeline entry that has the Annex team departing the Annex at about 10:07 PM, but also arriving at the TMF at about 10:07 PM, 25 minutes after “the beginning of the initial assault.”
The reference made by Paronto and Tiegen to requesting air support is a reminder that there were “boots on the ground” assets in Benghazi capable of coordinating with close-air-support (CAS) aircraft, if such support had been available. (I wrote earlier this year about why no alert package that could have provided CAS in Benghazi appears to have been feasible.) The CIA Annex security team clearly had the training and the gear to perform the requisite coordination.
But the fact that armed air support was not available was due, I continue to believe, to a failure of overall security planning for the operations in Benghazi. It would have required arranging in advance to have Air Force aircraft on alert, probably in Sicily, to respond to a contingency in Benghazi – and that’s exactly what should have been done by the State Department, given the well-known security vulnerabilities and the unstable situation there.
Yet the State Department explicitly and consciously chose not to arrange for that level of security response. Because no advance arrangements had been made, the best that could be managed on the night of 11 September 2012 was the diversion of an unarmed reconnaissance drone from its previously assigned mission. The drone was requested at 9:59 PM, and finally arrived overhead in Benghazi at 11:10 PM – just moments before the CIA Annex team cleared out of the TMF after a firefight and a search of the compound, with Sean Smith’s body but without the ambassador.