WASHINGTON — CIA security officers went to the aid of State Department staff less than 25 minutes after they got the first call for help during the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday as they laid out a detailed timeline of the CIA's immediate response to the attack from its annex less than a mile from the diplomatic mission.
The attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by what is now suspected to be a group of al-Qaida-linked militants killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The timeline was offered just days before the presidential election in a clear effort to refute recent news reports that said the CIA told its personnel to "stand down" rather than go to the consulate to help repel the attackers. Fox News reported that when CIA officers at the annex called higher-ups to tell them the consulate was under fire, they were twice told to "stand down." The CIA publicly denied the report.
The intelligence officials told reporters Thursday that when the CIA annex received a call about the assault, about half a dozen members of a CIA security team tried to get heavy weapons and other assistance from the Libyans. When the Libyans failed to respond, the security team, which routinely carries small arms, went ahead with the rescue attempt. The officials said at no point was the team told to wait.
Instead, they said the often outmanned and outgunned team members made all the key decisions on the ground, with no second-guessing from senior officials monitoring the situation from afar.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide intelligence information publicly.
The consulate attack has become a political issue in Washington, with Republicans questioning the security at the consulate, the intelligence on militant groups in North Africa and the Obama administration's response in the days after the attack. Republicans also have questioned whether enough military and other support was requested and received. And presidential candidate Mitt Romney has used the attack as a sign of what he says is President Barack Obama's weak leadership overseas.
In the first days after the attack, various administration officials linked the Benghazi incident to the simultaneous protests around the Muslim world over an American-made film that ridiculed the prophet Mohammed. Only later did they publicly attribute it to militants, possibly linked to al-Qaida, and acknowledged it was distinct from the film protests. The changing explanations have led to suspicions that the administration didn't want to acknowledge a terror attack on U.S. personnel so close to the Nov. 6 election, a charge Obama has strongly denied.
On Thursday, intelligence officials said they had early information that the attackers had ties to al-Qaida-linked groups, but did not make it public immediately because it was based on classified intelligence. And they said the early public comments about the attack and its genesis were cautious and limited, as they routinely are in such incidents.
They added that while intelligence officials indicated early on that extremists were involved in the assault, only later were officials able to confirm that the attack was not generated by a protest over the film.
The officials' description Thursday of the attack provided details about a second CIA security team in Tripoli that quickly chartered a plane and flew to Benghazi, but got stuck at the airport. By then, however, the first team had gotten the State Department staff out of the consulate and back to the CIA base at the nearby annex.
As the events were unfolding, the Pentagon began to move special operations forces from Europe to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. U.S. aircraft routinely fly in and out of Sigonella and there are also fighter jets based in Aviano, Italy. But while the U.S. military was at a heightened state of alert because of 9/11, there were no American forces poised and ready to move immediately into Benghazi when the attack began.
The Pentagon would not send forces or aircraft into Libya — a sovereign nation — without a request from the State Department and the knowledge or consent of the host country. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the information coming in was too jumbled to risk U.S. troops.