- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2016

One of the heroic survivors of the 2012 Benghazi attack, who held off invading Islamists until rescuers reached the besieged CIA base, has begun a national campaign to counter President Obama’s narrative on the terrorist threat.

Former Army Ranger Kris “Tanto” Paronto has started a nonprofit called Leading From the Front, which he hopes will translate into a national movement to drive home the real threat Islamic extremists pose to America.

“Radical Islam is at war with America, and we are slowly losing,” Mr. Paronto said. “From Benghazi to Orlando, we are seeing the deadly consequences of President Obama and Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s ‘leading from behind’ and their willful blindness towards the threat of radical Islam.”

Mrs. Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was Mr. Obama’s secretary of state when terrorists besieged the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Then a private security officer, Mr. Paronto witnessed two of his battle mates die during the 13-hour firefight, in which a U.S. ambassador and his aide also were killed.

He then heard what he considered lies from the administration about who attacked the mission and why. He read a “shameful” report from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that cleared the CIA.

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He said the president is refusing to identify the enemy as “radical Islam” or offer any real criticism of Muslim scholars who underpin a growing terrorist organization, the Islamic State.

Mr. Paronto’s Leading From the Front is one of the first projects under the American Legacy Center. Executive Director Adam Waldeck said the center operates off of a small donor base and will tap former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Donald Trump supporter, for help on campaigns.

“My weapon now is my voice, not a gun anymore,” Mr. Paronto told The Washington Times.

His main message is that the West is the target of a violent Islamic terrorist movement that will attack anyone, anywhere, as shown by the June 12 massacre by an Islamic State loyalist of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“Terrorists don’t care who you are,” Mr. Paronto said. “They don’t care if you’re the most accepting group in the country. They hit a gay club, for God’s sake. I can pretty much be sure most of the gay, homosexual community, LGBT community, out there never spoke an ill word against terrorism. They probably were more, ‘We’re excited about Muslims so we love everybody.’ And that’s OK. That’s the lifestyle, and they’re the ones who got hit.”

Mr. Paronto has the celebrity status — and the war record — to make people listen.

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He served nearly eight years as an Army Ranger before being honorably and medically discharged for Crohn’s disease in 2003. He launched a career as a private security officer stationed throughout the Middle East. He eventually landed a job as one of the CIA’s personal security officers. One assignment took him to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“I have a lot of experience dealing with terrorism and with dealing with the Islamic community,” he said.

‘The “13 Hours” guy’

The CIA shifted him to Benghazi, a hotbed of Islamic activism and gun-running in the post-Moammar Gadhafi era, weeks before the historical events of Sept. 11, 2012, at 9:42 p.m. That was the hour Islamists breached the gate and set fire to the U.S. mission, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and aide Sean Smith.

Mr. Paronto and his fellow security detail ended up in a firefight defending a CIA compound less than a mile away. Precise mortar rounds killed former Navy SEALs Tyrone Wood and Glen Doherty.

A hodgepodge rescue team of quasi-friendly local militia and Tripoli embassy personnel arrived at 5 a.m., more than seven hours after the invasion began.

Mr. Paronto became a voice for those who survived, appearing on Fox News Channel and other outlets.

He was prominently featured in the book “13 Hours,” which told the horrific story of defending the base that night against large numbers of extremists. The book was adapted into a 2016 movie directed by Michael Bay. (“13 Hours” refers to the time from when the mission was attacked to the hour the last rescue aircraft left Benghazi airport.)

Leading From the Front is a counter to the Obama administration’s explanation of how it intervened in Libya in 2011. According to a New Yorker article quoting a White House adviser, the administration’s approach is that, because the U.S. is less popular and less powerful, in its view, it is better to direct events from the background, not the front.

It helps explain Mr. Obama’s decision to stay out of postwar Libya and his reluctance to inject the U.S. into Syria’s civil war in any significant way. The president initially ignored the expanding Islamic State terrorist group, then gradually approved a campaign mostly limited to airstrikes and training locals.

Mr. Paronto is bringing a far different message around the country.

“Leading From the Front. What it is, is me and my voice and my faith out there saying, ‘You’ve got to wake up, and you’ve got to start holding all politicians accountable,’” he said.

That includes “supporting a full-scope military movement to go into Iraq and destroy [the Islamic State]. Not piecemeal. It’s not going to work,” he said.

The 45-year-old Nebraskan said he wants to break out of “just being the ‘13 Hours’ guy.’ But he still stews about what he considers the lies of Benghazi, such as the White House spin that the attack resulted from a spontaneous demonstration, when no such event occurred.

He said he and his team wanted to rescue the ambassador the instant news of the attack reached them. He said someone on the other end of a CIA officer’s call told them to wait, or “stand down.” He said they eventually left the base about 30 minutes later, but by the time they reached the mission, there was no hope. The ambassador and his aide were killed by the thick smoke that had invaded the safe area.

The House intelligence committee reported in 2014 that there was no evidence either Washington or the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli delayed the team’s departure.

“It was a tactical decision of the leadership on the ground to attempt to gather more information about the attack at the [mission] before authorizing the team’s departure,” the House report said. “There is no evidence to suggest that, absent the delay, the team could have saved Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith.”

Mr. Paronto also bristles at the Obama administration’s contention that the attack was not planned days in advance. Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, suggested the mortars could have been quickly placed on pickup trucks and driven to firing positions outside the CIA compound.

“These mortars were already set up with proper coordinates, and they were ready to go,” Mr. Paronto said. “They hit us exactly where they needed to hit us. They hit us on our main building that held all our security personnel. They hit the most important building to hit. Put on the back of a truck? No, that’s not possible. [Mr. Petraeus] needs to have his Ranger tab taken away.”

The base’s senior CIA officer, and the embassy, eventually hired militia fighters to form a huge convoy and rescue the holed-up Americans.

Of the authorities in Washington, Mr. Paronto said: “They had nobody coming. They left us. They left us behind.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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