PENTAGON — The Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon are defending their handling of the September 11 attack on American facilities in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Just days before the U.S. presidential election, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency each released details of their handling of the attacks that took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
Pentagon spokesman George Little on Friday said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in consultation with top officers including the head of the U.S. Africa Command, General Carter Ham, ordered special operations teams based in Europe and the United States to Libya within hours of learning of the attack.
“The fact of the matter is these forces were not in place until after the attacks were over," said Little. "So let me be clear, this department took swift action. We did respond. The secretary ordered forces to move and they simply were not able to arrive in time.”
The Pentagon says the teams were called to a U.S. base in Sigonella, Italy, but the forces did not proceed to Benghazi upon realizing there were no more Americans to rescue there. By the time the teams arrived in Italy, all surviving American personnel had been evacuated from the consulate in a rescue carried out by CIA security officers - and Libyan soldiers who drove the Americans to the airport to be airlifted.
The CIA issued its timeline of events on Thursday, revealing that CIA security officers went to the consulate 25 minutes after learning of the attack, which the agency says was carried out by militants who U.S. officials suspect are linked to al-Qaida.
It is not clear how well the U.S. officers were armed. CIA officials, speaking anonymously, said the officers tried to get weapons from the Libyans as those officers headed to the consulate compound, but the Libyans refused to give them weapons.
Officials said the attacks happened in two parts. They said the militants first attacked the consulate, set it on fire, and killed Stevens. In a second attack hours later, assailants fired mortars at a nearby annex that housed CIA security officers.
Officials have identified two of the four Americans who were killed as CIA security officers. A third victim, Sean Smith, was a computer specialist with the State Department.
The CIA’s statements countered earlier media reports that said the officers had received orders from their superiors to stand down and not proceed with the rescue.
Little said the U.S. military teams had prepared for a wide range of scenarios, including an assault that might last for days and a possible hostage rescue.
“This problem was analyzed quickly. You have to develop and assess what the available forces are and then make a decision to deploy them. And that response was done quickly. We did not have forewarning of this tragic event in Benghazi. The entire U.S. government was operating from a cold start,” he said.
The Benghazi attack has been an important topic in the presidential elections, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney accusing President Barack Obama of mishandling the attack and trying to cover up the details of how it happened, as well as the motives behind it.
In the days after the assault, Obama and members of his administration characterized the attack as a protest that had gone out of control following the appearance of a U.S.-produced film that Muslims considered offensive because it mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.