WASHINGTON — CIA officers revealed a clash over how quickly they should go help the besieged U.S. ambassador during the 2012 attack on an outpost in Libya, and a standing order for them to avoid violent encounters, according to a congressman and others who heard their private congressional testimony or were briefed on it.
The Obama administration has been dogged by complaints that the White House, Pentagon and State Department may not have done enough before and during the attack to save U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and by accusations that it later engaged in a cover-up.
One allegation was that U.S. officials told the CIA to "stand down" and not go to the aid of the Americans. Top CIA and Defense and State Department officials have denied that.
The testimony from the CIA officers and contractors who were in Libya on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, bolster those denials, but also shed light on what may have led to the delay of up to 30 minutes to respond, according to the varying accounts.
None of those who testified said a quicker response would have saved the lives of Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith at the temporary diplomatic facility.
The senior CIA officers in charge in Libya that day told Congress of a chaotic scramble to aid Stevens and others who were in the outpost when it was attacked by militants on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Those CIA leaders decided they and their security contractor team should wait before rushing from their annex into the violence roughly a mile away. They said they were trying to first gather intelligence and round up Libyan militia allies armed with heavy weapons, according to the testimony by the CIA officers in charge.
Some CIA security contractors disagreed with their bosses and wanted to move more quickly.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who heads a House intelligence subcommittee that interviewed the employees, said he believes this disagreement was the source of allegations that the CIA ordered security personnel to "stand down" and not help the people inside the diplomatic mission, and perhaps was the source of accusations the administration failed to answer a call from the CIA security team for combat aircraft.
"The team leader knew he was on his own," said Westmoreland, R-Ga.
He explained that the lack of air support was clear to all CIA employees working in Libya because of a 2011 CIA memorandum sent to employees after NATO forces ended their mission in support of the Libyan revolution.
"It basically told people in Benghazi ... if you are attacked, you get your 'package' (the personnel they are charged with protecting) and you get out," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A senior intelligence official confirmed that the CIA officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the diplomats' call for help by trying "to rally local support for the rescue effort and secure heavier weapons." When it became "clear that this additional support could not be rapidly obtained," the team moved toward the diplomatic compound.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the attack publicly by name.