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CIA played key role in response to Benghazi attack

The CIA played a pivotal role in responding to the September 11 attacks on a US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, senior intelligence officials revealed on Thursday, hitting back at claims that the agency had mishandled the incident.


The CIA played a central role in reacting to the September 11 attack on a US diplomatic compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi, intelligence officials said on Thursday, deploying security operatives to the scene within 25 minutes after the building came under siege.

The intelligence agency organised evacuation efforts, commandeering an unarmed US military drone to map out possible escape routes. The CIA also dispatched an emergency security team from the capital Tripoli to Benghazi, and chartered aircraft to carry US personnel to safety.

The version of events given by senior officials, who did not wish to be identified, is the most detailed chronology to date of that fateful night in Benghazi and the CIA’s involvement in it. The attack ultimately claimed the lives of the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.

While Thursday’s announcement shed light on the extent of the CIA’s covert presence in Libya, it was intended to refute media reports and claims by critics that officials in Washington delayed sending help to US personnel amid the attack.

The siege on the US consulate in Benghazi has evolved into a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney slamming incumbent President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation. The new information, which comes just days ahead of the November 6 vote, has sought to clear the air surrounding the president and the CIA’s response to the deadly attack.

“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,” the official said, praising the officers on the ground in Benghazi for their heroics.

“There was no second-guessing those decisions being made on the ground, by people at every US organization that could play a role in assisting those in danger. There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support,” the official added.

CIA counters criticism

Intelligence and other administration officials expressed particular dismay about a report on Fox News last week that alleged armed CIA operatives near the US consulate in Benghazi were repeatedly told to “stand down” after asking for permission to intervene on the night of September 11, and were also refused military backup by the CIA chain of command.

Following the initial broadcast of the Fox News report, Jennifer Youngblood, a CIA spokeswoman, denied that the CIA had ever turned down requests for help from US personnel in Benghazi.

“No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate,” Youngblood said.

According to the newly released timeline, at around 9:40pm Benghazi time, officials at the CIA’s relatively fortified and well-defended base in Benghazi got a call from State Department officials at the US diplomatic mission about a mile away reporting that the public mission complex had come under attack from a group of militants, the intelligence official said.

Other official sources said that the initial wave of attacks on the diplomatic mission involved setting fires using diesel fuel. The dense smoke created by the fuel both made it hard for people at the compound to breathe and to organise a response to the attack.

Around 25 minutes after the CIA received the initial report, a team of approximately six agency security officers left their base for the diplomatic mission.

Over the succeeding 25 minutes, the CIA team approached the compound, and tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to get local Libyan allies to bring them a supply of heavier weapons, and eventually moved into the burning diplomatic compound, the intelligence official said.

At around 11:10pm, a Defense Department drone, which had been on an unrelated mission some distance away, arrived in Benghazi to help officials on the ground gather information. By 11:30pm, US personnel working or staying at the mission had been rounded up except for Ambassador Stevens, who was missing, the intelligence official said.

When they tried to drive out of the diplomatic compound to return to the CIA base, however, the convoy carrying US evacuees came under fire.

Once they got back to the CIA base, that installation itself came under fire from what the intelligence official described as small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. These patchy attacks went on for roughly 90 minutes, the intelligence official said.

CIA-led team deployed from Tripoli base

Around the same time, a CIA security team based in Tripoli, which included two US military officers, landed at Benghazi airport. Upon its arrival, however, the team was held up as they tried to arrange local transport and to locate Ambassador Stevens.

The security team eventually arranged for an armed local escort and extra transportation, but decided not to go to the hospital where they believed Stevens had been taken. In part this was because they had reason to believe Stevens was likely dead, and because security at the hospital was believed, to be “uncertain” at best, the intelligence official said.

Not long before dawn, the reinforcements from Tripoli managed to take a convoy of vehicles to the CIA base to prepare for an anticipated evacuation.

However, just after they arrived at the CIA base, the official said, a new round of attacks on that facility was launched, this time with mortars. Although the bombardment lasted only 11 minutes, two US security officers were killed by a direct hit from one of the shells, the intelligence official said.

Finally, a bit less than an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan military unit arrived at the CIA base to help evacuate the compound of US personnel to the Benghazi airport, the official added.

Over the next few hours, roughly 30 Americans, as well as the bodies of Stevens and the other three Americans killed during the attacks, were loaded on planes and flown out of the city, several US officials said.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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