WASHINGTON - Military officers testified that there was no "stand-down order" that held back military assets that could have saved the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed at a diplomatic outpost and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, undercutting the contention of Republican lawmakers.
The Benghazi matter and the "stand-down" theory have become a rallying cry for Republicans, who have been holding congressional inquiries and hammering President Barack Obama's administration for its response in the final weeks of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, levelling accusations of both incompetence and coverup. Benghazi could be a big issue ahead of November's midterm congressional elections and the presidential race in 2016, especially if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is on the ballot. Democrats contend Republicans are obsessed with using a tragedy to score political points.
The "stand-down" theory centres on a Special Operations team — a detachment leader, a medic, a communications expert and a weapons operator with his foot in a cast — that was stopped from flying from Tripoli to Benghazi after the attacks of Sept. 11-12, 2012, had ended. Instead, it was instructed to help protect and care for those being evacuated from Benghazi and from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
The senior military officer who issued the instruction to "remain in place" and the detachment leader who received it said it was the right decision and has been widely mischaracterized. The order was to remain in Tripoli and protect some three dozen embassy personnel rather than fly to Benghazi some 600 miles (965 kilometres) away after all Americans there would have been evacuated. And the medic is credited with saving the life of an evacuee from the attacks.
Transcripts of hours of closed-door interviews with nine military leaders by the House of Representatives Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform committees were made public for the first time on Wednesday.
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight panel, has suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the order, though as secretary of state at the time, she was not in the military chain of command.
Despite lingering public confusion over many events that night, the testimony shows military leaders largely in agreement over how they responded to the attacks.
The initial, Sept. 11 assault on the diplomatic post, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and another American, prompted immediate action both in Benghazi and in Tripoli. Though not under any known further threat, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, was evacuated early in the morning of Sept. 12, its sensitive information and computer hard drives destroyed. Diplomats and military officials left in armoured vehicles for a classified U.S. site.
Upon arrival, the head of a small detachment entrusted with training Libyan special forces told his higher-ups he wanted to take his four-member team to Benghazi.
Military officials differ on when that telephone conversation took place, but they agree that no help could have arrived in Benghazi in time. They put the call somewhere between 5:05 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. local time. It would take about 90 minutes to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi. The next U.S.-chartered plane to make the trip left at 6:49 a.m., meaning it could have arrived shortly before 9 a.m., nearly four hours after the second, 11-minute battle at the CIA facility ended at about 5:25 a.m.
Republicans investigating Benghazi have clashed over whether military superiors, in effect, ordered the team to stand down. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the Armed Services Committee chairman, has cited previous testimony from military officers that ordering the foursome to stay in Tripoli and protect embassy personnel there didn't amount to "standing down."
Others have said a stand-down order was given.
Beyond questions of timing, the testimony of Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who was then Special Operations commander for Africa, also challenged the idea the team had the capacity to bolster security in Benghazi.
Losey said there was "never an order to stand down." His instruction to the team "was to remain in place and continue to provide security in Tripoli because of the uncertain environment." Earlier on Sept. 11, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had been breached as well.
Losey questioned what the four could have done to aid the situation in Benghazi, where American personnel were preparing to evacuate as soon as possible. He said assigning the small team to defend a perimeter wouldn't have been appropriate.
The Special Operations detachment leader's name is omitted from the testimony transcript, but he previously has been identified as Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson. More than a year and a half later, Gibson, who is now a colonel, agreed that staying in Tripoli was the best decision.
"It was not a stand-down order," he testified in March. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"
Associated Press writer Connie Cass contributed to this report.
Congressional testimony: http://armedservices.house.gov/index.cfm/2014/7/additional-declassified-benghazi-transcripts-released
Follow Donna Cassata on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP and Bradley Klapper at http://twitter.com/bklapperAP
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