WASHINGTON — The testimony of nine military officers undermines contentions by Republican lawmakers that a "stand-down order" 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.
The "stand-down" theory centers on a Special Operations team of four — a detachment leader, a medic, a communications expert and a weapons operator with his foot in a cast — who were stopped from flying from Tripoli to Benghazi after the attacks of Sept. 11-12, 2012, had ended. Instead, they were 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 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 the military leaders by the House Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform committees were made public for the first time on Wednesday. The Associated Press had reviewed the material ahead of its release.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight panel, has suggested 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 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 armored vehicles for a classified U.S. site several miles away. Upon arrival there, 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, R-Calif., 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, such as Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, have said a stand down order was given.
"We had proximity, we had capability, we had four individuals in Libya armed, ready to go, dressed, about to get into the car to go in the airport to go help their fellow countrymen who were dying and being killed and under attack in Benghazi, and they were told to stand down," Chaffetz said more than a year ago. "That's as sickening and depressing and disgusting as anything I have seen. That is not the American way."
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, and would have meant the military losing its command operation in Tripoli "for the benefit of four riflemen who weren't even riflemen."
"The guy's command and control, he's communications, medical," Losey recounted. "I've got one weapons guy with his foot in a cast. Didn't make a lot of sense."
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.'"
"Initially, I was angry," Gibson said. "A tactical commander doesn't like to have those decisions taken away from him. But then once I digested it a little bit, then I realized, OK, maybe there was something else that was going on. Maybe I'm needed here for something else."
His contingent would indeed prove useful in Tripoli, according to the testimonies.
When the Americans from Benghazi arrived, among the wounded was one person with a unique blood type. Gibson and others credited the medic in the team with saving a life.