The Obama administration's new timelines for the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, reveal a significant delay in getting ground troops to the area and the negative impact of the State Department's decision to remove from the country a site security team and its aircraft that could have aided a rescue.
The Pentagon's timeline, released Friday, illustrates how U.S. Africa Command was hamstrung by not having its own special operations quick-reaction force and that it took nearly 20 hours to position borrowed forces, by which time the crisis had ended.
Africa Command had to tap European Command's quick-reaction force, which was preoccupied with a training mission in Croatia. It took 17 hours for the unit to arrive in Sicily, long after the assault on the consulate ended. A U.S.-based special operations force took 191/2 hours to arrive at the base in Sigonella, Sicily, about 470 miles from Benghazi.
The Washington Times has reported that Africa Command had not finished setting up its own rapid-response team before the attack.
A CIA timeline released this month shows that it took 31/2 hours after the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli learned of the attack at 9:40 p.m. Libya time to charter two aircraft and take off with a rescue force for the 50-minute flight to Benghazi.
Minus the flight time, it took nearly three hours to assemble a team and get it to the airport while negotiating chartered flights.
"Obviously, they could have taken off more quickly with their own aircraft," a military source briefed by the CIA told The Times.
Four months before that attack, the State Department ordered the embassy's security team to give up its DC-3 aircraft, which had been used to fly teams of special operations security personnel across Libya.
The State Department ultimately pulled all those units, called site security teams. The last one left Libya in August, a month before the attack. State Department officials rejected repeated requests from Tripoli for security personnel to remain amid increased militant attacks.
A State Department spokesman did not respond to The Times' questions about the aircraft issue. The agency has appointed an independent blue-ribbon accountability board to investigate.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month released a State Department email denying the team's request to keep the plane. The department downplayed the significance of that move, which justified it on the grounds that commercial aircraft were available at the Tripoli airport.
But the CIA timeline shows that the recalled DC-3 -- plus the special operations force that had been removed -- could have played a crucial role in getting to Benghazi faster to rescue personnel in a CIA annex being attacked by militants.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his communications specialist were killed in the terrorist attack on the consulate. Two former Navy SEALs died from mortar fire on the CIA annex early Sept. 12.
Army Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who headed the special operations site security team in Libya, told the House Oversight Committee on Oct. 10 how he fought a losing bureaucratic battle to keep his men in the country.
He noted that on at least two occasions his troops accompanied diplomats to Benghazi for extra security. His statement indicates that his unit could have been available to travel with Mr. Stevens on Sept. 11.
"Yes, the 16 members of the [site security team] did go to Benghazi on two separate occasions to support movement of the principal officer in the location to bolster the security that was there," Col. Wood, a National Guard Green Beret, testified before the committee.
"These individuals were familiar and carried larger-caliber, better weapons, and the tactics they would employ would be to counter a military-style attack."
A senior defense official told reporters Friday that the military reacted as quickly as possible in ordering troops to the area.
The Pentagon timeline shows that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta approved sending two special operations teams to Sicily between 6 and 8 p.m. EDT -- between midnight and 2 a.m. Libya time -- when militants were attacking the CIA annex sporadically.
The Times has reported that the only remaining option for Army Gen. Carter Ham, chief of Africa Command, in terms of direct firepower was to deploy F-16 fighters from Aviano Air Base in northern Italy.
But a military source said the video feed from a drone over Benghazi did not clearly show the enemy or its mortar positions. Also, the CIA annex was nestled among residences, increasing the chance that a missile strike could kill civilians.
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