There was no military "stand-down" order given the night of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, military officials told lawmakers late Wednesday, contradicting a State Department official's account of the event.
The lack of a U.S. military response to the hourslong assaults in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed has been a key point of contention for Republican lawmakers, who have criticized the Obama administration's handling of the attacks and their aftermath.
Reports of a military stand-down order have circulated almost since the night of the attacks, which unfolded in two stages over several hours at two locations — the U.S. diplomatic post and a nearby CIA building, where survivors of the first assault took shelter.
Such reports increased earlier this year after congressional testimony from Stevens' deputy, Greg Hicks, who said that a site security team at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had been ordered to stand down — that is, not to go to Benghazi and battle terrorists or rescue U.S. personnel. Mr. Hicks noted that the site security team leader, Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, expressed frustration over being ordered to stand down.
But Col. Gibson said Wednesday that no stand-down order was given, according to the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. The subcommittee held a classified briefing with Col. Gibson; retired Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, former commander of U.S. Africa Command; and Navy Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa.
"Contrary to news reports, Gibson was not ordered to 'stand down' by higher command authorities in response to his understandable desire to lead a group of three other Special Forces soldiers to Benghazi," the subcommittee said in a rare statement about a closed-door briefing.
Instead, the site security team was ordered to remain in Tripoli to defend the embassy and its staff in case terrorists also struck in the capital while the Benghazi post was under attack, and to assist the wounded who were being evacuated to Tripoli after the first phase of the fighting had ended, the statement said.
Col. Gibson "acknowledged that, had he deployed to Benghazi, he would have left Americans in Tripoli undefended. He also stated that, in hindsight, he would not have been able to get to Benghazi in time to make a difference, and as it turned out, his medic was needed to provide urgent assistance to survivors once they arrived in Tripoli," the statement said.
The medic "saved the leg and probably the life" of one of the evacuated personnel, according to Mr. Hicks' congressional testimony.
The revelation that there was no stand-down order is unlikely to blunt continuing Republican efforts to paint the attack as an avoidable failure by the Obama administration and, in particular, by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, tipped as a likely Democratic presidential candidate for 2016.
The subcommittee's statement also notes that there was a national security planning process underway for last year's Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary to ensure that U.S. personnel and facilities abroad were safe. The planning was led by then-White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, now CIA director. The process, the White House said at the time, involved "numerous meetings to review security measures in place."
"When questioned about this process today," the subcommittee said, "Gen. Ham, the combatant commander responsible for one of the most volatile threat environments in the world, stated that neither he nor anyone working for him was consulted as part of the Brennan 9/11 planning process."
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