Benghazi: 2 days, 2 distinct attacks on Americans

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 10, 2014 at 11:34 am •  Published: July 10, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Well-trained attackers executed the deadly dawn assault on a CIA complex in Benghazi, Libya, suggesting different perpetrators from those who penetrated the U.S. diplomatic mission the previous night, according to newly revealed testimony from top military commanders.

The initial attack, on Sept. 11, 2012, killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith and set the mission ablaze. Nearly eight hours later at the CIA complex nearby, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack that showed clear military training, retired Gen. Carter Ham told Congress in closed-door testimony earlier this year.

The House Armed Services Committee released the testimony Wednesday.

The second assault probably was the work of a new team of militants who had seized on reports of violence at the diplomatic mission the night before and hit the Americans while they were most vulnerable, according to testimony that could clarify the events. The testimony also reveals how little information the military had on which to base an urgent response.

Bitter recriminations in the U.S. followed the 2012 attacks, including Republican-led congressional investigations and campaign-season denunciations of the Obama administration, which made inaccurate statements about the Libyan attacks. The testimony released Wednesday underscored a key detail that sometimes has been lost in the debate: that the attacks were two distinct events over two days on two different buildings, perhaps by unrelated groups.

The U.S. government still has not fully characterized the first attack in which, according to Ham and eight other military officers, men who seemed familiar with the lightly protected diplomatic compound breached it and set it on fire, killing Stevens and Smith. A disorganized mob of looters then overran the facility.

In testimony to two House panels earlier this year, the officers said that commanders didn't have the information they needed to understand the nature of the attack, that they were unaware of the extent of the U.S. presence in Benghazi at the time and they were convinced erroneously for a time that they were facing a hostage crisis without the ability to move military assets into place that would be of any use.

To this day, despite the investigations, it's not clear if the violence resulted from a well-planned, multiphase military-type assault or from a loosely connected, escalating chain of events.

Two House panels — Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform — conducted interviews with the nine officers on separate days from January to April.

In their testimony, military officials expressed some uncertainty about the first attack, describing protests and looting in an assault that lasted about 45 minutes.

The military attache to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli told Congress the first attack showed some advance planning. The Libyan police officer guarding the diplomatic compound fled as it began.

The defense attache, whose name wasn't released, suggested the attackers "had something on the shelf" — an outline of a plan based on previously obtained information about the compound and its security measures, so they were ready to strike when the opportunity arose.

"They came in, and they had a sense of purpose, and I think it sometimes gets confused because you had looters and everyone else coming in," he said. "It was less than kind of full, thought-out, methodical."

Ham testified that the second attack, which killed Woods and Doherty at the annex a mile from the diplomatic compound where the assault began the night before, showed clear military training. It was probably the work of a new team of militants, taking advantage after reports of violence at the first site and American vulnerability.

"Given the precision of the attack, it was a well-trained mortar crew, and in my estimation they probably had a well-trained observer," said Ham, who headed the U.S. command in Africa. The second attack showed "a degree of sophistication and military training that is relatively unusual and certainly, I think, indicates that this was not a pickup team. This was not a couple of guys who just found a mortar someplace."

Ham said the nearly eight-hour time lapse between the two attacks also seemed significant. "If the team (that launched the second attack) was already there, then why didn't they shoot sooner?" he asked.

"I think it's reasonable that a team came from outside of Benghazi," he said of the second attack in testimony on April 9. Violent extremists saw an opportunity "and said, 'Let's get somebody there.'" He also acknowledged that the absence of American security personnel on the ground soon enough after the first attack "allowed sufficient time for the second attack to be organized and conducted," he said.

Stevens had gone to Benghazi from the embassy in Tripoli to open a cultural center, State Department officials said.

The attacks came as President Barack Obama was in a close re-election battle, campaigning in part on the contention that al-Qaida no longer posed a significant threat to the United States and that, blending the economy and the fight against terrorism, General Motors was alive but "Osama bin Laden is dead." A terror attack on American assets could have damaged that argument.

Five days after the attack, after feverish email exchanges about her "talking points" among national security staff members and their spokesmen, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice linked the Benghazi attacks to protests in Tunisia and Cairo over an anti-Islam video. Weeks later, U.S. officials retracted that account but never fully articulated a new one.

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