WASHINGTON — One by one, behind closed doors, military officers explained what they did and didn’t do the night the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, burned.
Together their 30 hours of testimony to congressional investigators gives the fullest account yet of the military’s response to the surprise attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans the night of Sept. 11, 2012, and early the next morning.
Transcripts of the interviews, with some names and classified information blacked out, were released Wednesday
The nine officers, including retired Gen. Carter Ham, then the head of the military’s U.S. Africa Command, described making on-the-fly decisions with only sparse information about the crisis unfolding at a diplomatic post and the nearby CIA compound.
None of them was in Benghazi. The closest? Some were 600 miles away in Tripoli, the Libyan capital; others gave orders from command headquarters in Germany or Washington.
They did not witness what went on in the White House or at the State Department. Ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have testified about Benghazi. More hearings are coming.
The nine officers shed light on the nature of the attacks; speculation that the military was ordered to “stand down” from helping Americans; suggestions that the U.S. should have rushed jets or a special operations team to Benghazi; and early misperceptions that the attack began as a protest over an anti-Islam video.
Some lingering questions about the Benghazi attacks and what the officers told the House Armed Services Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this year:
Q: Did military leaders initially believe the trouble resulted from a street protest?
A: Some heard that, some didn’t; nothing was clear about events on the ground at first.
One of the earliest reports came from Ambassador Chris Stevens, who told his deputy in a phone call cut short: “We’re under attack.”
“We started calling it an attack from inception,” said Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, who was at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. “We never referred to it as anything else.”
Another military official in Tripoli, whose name was withheld, said he wasn’t sure how to interpret that word — “attack” — at first.
He had heard about protesters who scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier that night. “It could be, you know, vandals are attacking,” he said.
Retired Vice Adm. Charles “Joe” Leidig Jr., deputy commander of AFRICOM, said he was awakened in the night at his headquarters in Germany with word that “there had been protesters, and they had overrun the facility in Benghazi.”
Speaking for the Obama administration, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows five days later and suggested the attacks were born from regional protests against an anti-Islamic video. The administration later recanted that position but never thoroughly articulated what they believe happened. Republicans say Obama soft-pedaled a terrorist attack to protect his re-election.
Q: Was a four-man team headed for Benghazi ordered to stand down?
A: Technically, no, the team was not ordered, as some have asserted, to stand by as militants attacked Americans 600 miles away. But they were told not to go to Benghazi and instead to stay and protect personnel in Tripoli. In hindsight, the attacks were over by then, anyway.
The special operations officer leading that team and the commander who gave him the order both told investigators that it was the right decision.
Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who gave the order, said he needed the team in Tripoli in case trouble started there.
Although some Republican lawmakers have suggested the team might have helped repel attackers in Benghazi, their flight would have arrived after the final assault that killed two CIA contractors.
Q: What did the military do to help?
A: Following the first report of trouble about 9:40 p.m. local time on Sept. 11, officials began looking for military planes that could head to Benghazi for evacuations. None would be available for hours.
An unmanned drone already in Libya was quickly sent to survey the situation at the diplomatic post. Nighttime darkness limited its usefulness.
Two military members — both from Special Forces — were in the six-man team that flew from Tripoli to Benghazi around midnight and aided with the defense and evacuation of the CIA base.
An Air Force C-17 transport plane flew the Benghazi evacuees from Tripoli to Germany the night of Sept. 12, about 24 hours after the attacks began.
A U.S. anti-terror team sent from Spain arrived in Tripoli after the evacuees had gone.
Two military teams — one in Croatia and the other in the U.S. — prepared to go but, as the situation changed, weren’t brought to Libya. They would have arrived too late.
Not until the morning of Sept. 12 was the 31st Fighter Wing in Aviano, Italy, ordered to get four F-16 jets and four pilots ready to respond if needed. The call to Benghazi never came.