Armed State Department security agents retreated rather than fired on terrorists who were invading the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, according to a report released Wednesday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The Senate report says that as Islamist militants broke through the compound’s gate and began setting buildings on fire, diplomatic security agents retrieved their M4 carbine assault rifles. The agents then moved toward Building C to protect U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who had holed up inside.
“They encountered armed attackers and decided to return to Building B to take cover rather than open fire,” the 85-page report says. “They eventually regrouped, made their way to a nearby armored vehicle, and then drove over to assist [an] agent on the roof of building C searching for the ambassador.”
“The DS agents did not fire a single shot that night during the attack on the Temporary Mission Facility,” the report states.
Douglas Frantz, the State Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said the agents followed protocol.
“We’re concerned by the perception the DS agents were not doing their job, when in fact at great risk they tried to save Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith,” Mr. Frantz said. “They tried to go back into the building to find them in the smoke. The DS agents were grossly outnumbered at that point and they are trained not to make these situations worse. The thinking was, if they went in there guns ablaze, they would simply draw fire on themselves and reduce any chance they had of finding Sean Smith and Chris Stevens alive inside the building.”
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Told that the Senate report notes that no DS agent fired a shot during the attack, Mr. Frantz said, “I read the report very carefully. And I saw that. They are trained not to fire a shot unless they feel it can be effective.”
Later, a rescue team from a nearby CIA annex that included ex-military personnel arrived and fired on attackers as they collected survivors and searched for Stevens.
Libyans later found that Stevens had succumbed to smoke inhalation in Building C. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
That the State Department’s well-armed personnel never fired a shot that night adds another wrinkle to the Benghazi chronology.
The department’s accountability review board, in its report, portrayed the diplomatic security agents as hopelessly outnumbered. It referred to the agents as “ARSO” (assistant regional security officer) and buildings as “Villas.”
“At Villa B, ARSO 3 encountered ARSO 4, who was also arming and equipping himself, and the two then attempted to return to Villa C,” the accountability review board report said. “They turned back, however, after seeing many armed intruders blocking the alley between Villas B and C. ARSOs 3 and 4, outnumbered and outgunned by the armed intruders in the alley, returned to Villa B and barricaded themselves in a back room.”
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Five diplomatic security agents — State’s personal army assigned to protect ambassadors and other diplomats — were at the Benghazi compound that night. Three worked there; two others arrived with Stevens.
They were backed up by three members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade, three Libyan national police officers and unarmed locals hired by a British security company, Blue Mountain Group.
A few miles away at the CIA annex were six armed, former military personnel hired for security. Some of them left the annex in two armored vehicles for the rescue mission about 25 minutes after the 9:40 p.m. attack.
According to the Senate report, a diplomatic security agent had placed Stevens and State Department aide Sean Smith in a “safe area” inside Building C. Militants used diesel fuel to set the building on fire. The agent attempted to lead the men toward an escape window. The agent crawled out.
“He then realized he had become separated from the Ambassador and Sean Smith in the smoke, so he reentered and searched the building multiple times,” the report says. “The DS agent, suffering from severe smoke inhalation, climbed a ladder to the roof where he radioed the other DS agents for assistance and attempted unsuccessfully to ventilate the building by breaking a skylight.”
This agent was armed with an M4 carbine but did not fire.
At some point early in the attack, other agents retrieved their M4 assault rifles, which are capable of unleashing a stream of 5.56-caliber automatic fire. But as they approached Building C, they encountered armed militants and “decided to return to Building B to take cover rather than open fire,” the Senate report says.
The February Brigade proved almost useless. The annex rescue team asked brigade members to provide cover fire so they could enter the compound, but the militia refused. A few followed the armored vehicles on foot into the complex.
The security team then engaged in a firefight and pushed back the attackers.
After searching in vain for Stevens, the rescue team returned to the annex. It fought through a hail of gunfire at one checkpoint, but all personnel made it back at 11:30 p.m., only to endure a night of militant attacks before a rescue team from the capital, Tripoli, arrived.
Stevens and Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods — both of whom battled militants at the CIA annex — were killed in the Benghazi attack.