The Obama administration, seeking to tamp down mounting questions over its handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, released unprecedented details this week of the CIA's role in efforts to defend the consulate and rescue its inhabitants.
In a statement emailed to The Washington Times Friday, a senior U.S. intelligence official described how the CIA flew an armed rapid-response team from Tripoli in a hastily chartered aircraft, and how an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone was deployed over the consulate while the attack was raging.
The account furnishes new details about the response to the attack, which came in two waves: the first in the evening at the consulate itself, when heavily-armed extremists overran the complex and set it ablaze, killing the ambassador and one of his colleagues; and the second at the CIA's facility in Benghazi at dawn the following morning, when the attackers were supported by mortar fire, which killed two agency security officers.
The account also confirms for the first time that the armed U.S. security officials who rushed to aid the small diplomatic security team at the consulate itself were CIA personnel or contractors, and that the rapid-response team remained at Benghazi airport for several hours during the night, believing that attack was over and beset by communication, transportation and security concerns.
"Upon learning the ambassador was missing and that the situation at the [CIA] annex had calmed, [the rapid-response team] focused on locating the ambassador and trying to secure information on the security situation at the hospital," the senior intelligence official said.
"The [CIA] officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible," the official added.
The release of the new details appeared designed to rebut reports that CIA officials in Washington had told their personnel in Benghazi not to respond to calls for help from the consulate and that the U.S. military had failed to provide support to the agency
"There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support," the official said, who asked for anonymity because of continuing investigations into the incident.
The account also made clear that the Pentagon had diverted a surveillance drone to provide live video of the consulate and provided the plane that eventually flew the survivors of the attack out of Benghazi the following day.
Pentagon spokesman George Little repeated Friday that the U.S. military had been ready to respond within a few hours of the attack.
Mr. Little said that several U.S. military units in the United States and Europe had been ordered to respond, but did not get to a staging base in Sicily until well after the attacks in Benghazi had ended. He added that the Pentagon would soon release a timeline of military actions taken on Sept. 11.
In the heated atmosphere of a presidential election, questions about the administration's handling of the incident have acquired a partisan tone. President Obama, who referred to "acts of terror" the next day while denouncing the fatal attack, and other officials have been accused by critics of trying to make a partisan issue of the incident.
But both Republican and Democratic skeptics have questioned the administration's account of the event, and questioned also subsequent statements by Mr. Obama and other administration officials linking the Benghazi attacks to a "spontaneous" series of popular demonstrations in the region against an American-made YouTube video allegedly insulting Islam's prophet Muhammad.
On Thursday, senior intelligence officials told reporters they had early information that the attackers had ties to al Qaeda-linked groups but did not make it public immediately because it was based on classified communication intercepts. And they said early public comments by officials about the attack and its genesis were cautious and limited, as they routinely are in such incidents.
But one former senior intelligence official said the administration and the CIA had waited too long to tell their side of the story.
"I don't understand what took them so long," said the former official, who requested anonymity in order candidly to discuss his successors' handling of the incident.
"From what I have read [about the briefing], there is nothing in there that they shouldn't have been able to put out six weeks ago."
In the absence of detailed answers to questions about the events of that night, "conspiracy theories inevitably emerge," the former official told The Times.
"The questions multiply and you never get out from under it," the former official concluded.
• This account was based in part on wire service dispatches.
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