WASHINGTON — CIA security officers in a Benghazi post responded within 25 minutes to a call for help from a nearby State Department compound after it came under attack Sept. 11, officials said Thursday, seeking to refute a Fox News report asserting that CIA managers ordered them to stay put.
In releasing a detailed timeline of CIA actions that night, senior intelligence officials have put aside long-standing concerns about revealing the extent of the agency’s presence in Benghazi in order to push back against what officials say are baseless allegations that aid was withheld.
“At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could,” a senior intelligence official said in a statement. “There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.”
Fox News asserted in a story last week that CIA managers had ordered agency security officers to “stand down” and remain in their own facility, known as the Annex, when the attack on the diplomatic compound began about 9:40 p.m. and that there was an hour delay before officers disobeyed orders and went to help repel the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and State Department officer Sean Smith.
Among those who rushed to help was Tyrone Woods, a former Navy SEAL who was part of the CIA security team and who later died in the attacks.
The Fox story also asserted that the CIA “chain of command” refused to pass along requests from its officers for military aid and that special operations forces in nearby Sicily could have been sent to help but were not. Intelligence and Pentagon officials strenuously denied that Thursday.
They insisted there was no viable military option to disrupt what amounted to a series of sporadic attacks in a crowded city full of people sympathetic to the U.S. There were no armed drones in the region and airstrikes were not called for, officials said.
“Let’s say we were able to get an aircraft there. Do you go in and start strafing a populated area without knowing where friend or foe is?” a senior Defense official asked. “If you did that, you could kill the very people you are trying to help.”
A special operations team was sent to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, but the team arrived after the attack ended, said the senior Defense official, who would not be quoted by name discussing potentially classified information.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta learned of the attack shortly after it began, about 4:30 p.m Eastern time, Defense officials said, and discussed it in a previously scheduled meeting with the president. Obama ordered him to pursue whatever options were feasible, a Defense official said.
Panetta “ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Shortly after 11 p.m. a surveillance drone had arrived from elsewhere in Libya — about an hour after it was requested, officials said. But the video feed was not seen by the president, contrary to some news reports. And the feed did not offer analysts a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground, officials said.
After the CIA team arrived at the compound, “over the next 25 minutes, team members approach the compound, attempt to secure heavy weapons [from Libyans], and make their way onto the compound itself in the face of enemy fire,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The senior intelligence official disclosed that the CIA also sent a second six-member team from Tripoli on a chartered plane to help repel the attack. The team included Glen Doherty, another former SEAL, who was later killed when attackers fired mortar rounds at the CIA Annex.
The team arrived around midnight but got bogged down at the airport. Ultimately, it learned that “the ambassador was almost certainly dead” and headed to the agency facility “to assist with the evacuation,” the official said.
It arrived with Libyan support at the Annex at 5:15 a.m., just before mortar rounds began to strike. Woods and Doherty were killed as they fired on militants from the roof. The mortar attack lasted 11 minutes, the official said.
The drone overhead was not armed. Even if it had been, there were no viable targets, officials said.
“The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible,” the intelligence official said. “The security officers in particular were genuine heroes. They quickly tried to rally additional local support and heavier weapons, and when that could not be accomplished within minutes, they still moved in and put their own lives on the line to save their comrades.”