Military timeline from night of Benghazi attack begs more questions
By Jennifer Griffin, Adam Housley Published November 11, 2012
After more than nine weeks of trying to reconcile their story line with that of the State Department and the CIA, the Pentagon finally released its timeline of the Libya terror attack during a Friday afternoon, off-camera briefing with an official who could only be quoted anonymously
The news was overtaken almost immediately by the announcement that Gen. David Petraeus had resigned, due to an extramarital affair. He was slated to testify in closed-door hearings on Capitol Hill this coming week before the Senate and House intelligence committees. Petraeus no longer plans to testify.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told "Fox News Sunday" that she "absolutely" thinks Patraeus' resignation has no connection to the Libya matter but he could be called to testify before Congress at a later date.
"We may well ask," the California senator told Fox.
However, while the Petraeus resignation has since dominated attention in Washington, an examination of the military’s version of events reveals a number of discrepancies and gaps worth closer scrutiny.
THE FIRST DISCREPANCY
The Defense Department timeline on the night of Sept. 11 begins at 9:42 p.m. local time and states, “The incident starts at the facility in Benghazi.”
Right from the start, the Pentagon and the CIA timelines do not match. (The CIA timeline, which was released on Nov. 1, states that at 9:40 p.m., “A senior State Department security officer at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi called the CIA annex and requested assistance.”)
A source at the CIA annex that night told Fox News that when they first asked to go and help, they were told to wait.
Within 17 minutes of the start of the attack, AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter Ham, who happens to be visiting Washington and was in the Pentagon that day, redirects an unarmed, unmanned drone to Benghazi.
PANETTA AND DEMPSEY ARE ALERTED 50 MINUTES AFTER ATTACK
At 10:32 p.m. (4:32 p.m. in Washington), 50 minutes after the incident began, the National Military Command Center, which is the operations center at the Pentagon where Ham is overseeing the operation, notifies Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
That means for nearly an hour, no one told the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman that a U.S. ambassador is in peril and his personal security officer has pressed his “personal distress button” which sends an SMS signal back to the command authority in the U.S. and a U.S. embassy has been overrun by attackers.
A CIA team left for the consulate at 10:04 p.m. -- 28 minutes before the Pentagon says Panetta and Dempsey were told the attack had occurred.
Sources at the CIA annex in Benghazi told Fox News in an interview on Oct. 25 that they asked permission to leave for the consulate immediately and twice were told to wait. The CIA says the base chief was trying to arrange Libyan help.
PREVIOUSLY SCHEDULED MEETING WITH PRESIDENT: 78 MINUTES AFTER ATTACK
At 5 p.m. in Washington, D.C. (11 p.m. in Libya), nearly an hour and a half after the attack began, according to the Pentagon’s timeline, “Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey attend a previously scheduled meeting with the President at the White House.”
The attack has already been under way for 78 minutes, but no rescue forces from outside Libya have yet been mobilized.
By 5:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. in Libya), all surviving American personnel are rescued by the CIA annex team and leave the consulate for the CIA annex. From 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the Pentagon, Panetta, Dempsey and Ham meet to discuss additional response options.
MORE CALLS FOR HELP
Upon returning to the annex, the CIA team and those that were rescued immediately begin taking fire and at midnight, according to sources on the ground that night, begin making radio calls for help and air support. Almost immediately, they begin taking fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
According to a senior U.S. defense official, “This was not one long continuous fight, but two separate incidents at two separate facilities with some separation of time.”
However, British sources who were near the consulate and annex that night tell a different story, saying there was almost continuous fire on the annex after the team fled from the consulate.
Sometime over the next two hours, according to the official Pentagon timeline, Panetta gives the “go code” for two Marine FAST (Fleet Anti-terrorism Security) teams to prepare to leave Rota, Spain. A Special Operations force which is training in Central Europe is told to “prepare to deploy to an intermediate staging base in southern Europe (Sigonella, Sicily), and a Special Operations team in the U.S. is told to prepare to deploy to Sigonella as well.
It isn’t until 2:53 a.m. (about five hours after the incident began) that those orders are formalized by Panetta and the teams are told they can leave.
TEAM LANDS AT SIGONELLA 20 HOURS LATER
The Pentagon says that the European-based team of rescuers landed at Sigonella air base at 7:57 p.m. on Sept. 12, more than 20 hours after the attack began and 40 minutes after the last survivor was flown out of Tripoli on a U.S. C-17 transport plane.
Fox News has learned more details about the European rescue team. More than 30 Special Operations Forces, part of a Commander’s In Extremis Force, or CIF, which is normally on a short tether, are deployed in the event of a terror attack. They are a counterterror SWAT team.
The group ordered toward Libya was from the Charlie 110 Company, based in Stuttgart, Germany, but had been training in Croatia on an exercise known as “Jackal Stone.” The training involved counterterrorism exercises.
NO PERMISSION TO LAND
Military sources familiar with the orders given to the CIF team tell Fox News the CIF plane headed to Libya -- not to first stage at Sigonella as the Pentagon timeline suggests. The Pentagon denies this, saying simply that they were ordered to an intermediate staging base.
What cannot be confirmed is what time that team could have been outside Libyan air space. The Pentagon won’t say when they took off from Croatia.
Multiple defense sources say that the plane did not have permission to enter Libya. That permission would have to be secured from the Libyans by the State Department.
“FEET DRY OVER LIBYA”
Survivors of the attack at the annex say that they heard over the radio net that night that U.S. military assets were, “feet dry over Libya," which would refer to assets crossing from sea to land and hovering. The Pentagon denies this.
The original story board that shows the CIF movement that night is difficult to find, according to those who saw the original timeline. The official brief, according to those familiar with it, simply says that the plane landed at Sigonella at 7:57 p.m. on Sept. 12 -- 20 hours after the start of the attack, even though they were just a few hours away in Croatia.
This raises the question: what time did they get their orders and how long did it take the CIF to scramble?
The team was most likely flying on a modified MC-130 P Talon 2. A modified C-130 flying from Croatia about 900 miles from the Libyan coast could have been there under three hours from take-off. Croatia to Libya is the same distance approximately as Washington, D.C., to Miami.
Furthermore, the modified C-130 plane used by Special Operations teams can be refueled in flight, allowing them to extend their range and hover time, if an air refueling plane is available. It can fly for nine hours without being refueled.
“It’s not like you dial up the U.S. military and service members go down a fire pole, hop on a fire engine and go. That’s not how our forces work, especially from a cold start,” according to the senior U.S. defense official who briefed the Pentagon timeline. “We are an excellent military, finest in the world, always prepared, but we are neither omniscient nor omnipresent.”
The CIF, which included dozens of Special Operators, was never utilized to help rescue 30 Americans who had fought off attackers on the ground in Benghazi until 5:26 a.m. on Sept. 12. Pentagon officials say it did not arrive in time to help.
In the days following the attack in Benghazi, the CIF team was sent by Ham to Tunisia to remain on standby in case they were needed for other contingencies, such as a retaliatory strike, according to senior U.S. military commanders with knowledge of the operation.
“We were posturing forces to be ready for possible responses,” according to a senior U.S. defense official. “We were looking at the possibility of a potential hostage rescue.”
To date no retaliatory strikes have taken place, and questions remain about what could have been done to help those who were in peril on the ground.
According to the Pentagon timeline, the first conference call to AFRICOM, EUCOM, CENTCOM, TRANSCOM, SOCOM and the four military branches occurred nearly five hours after the attack began.
THE CIA RESCUE TEAM FROM TRIPOLI
Meanwhile in Libya, two hours and 48 minutes after the attack on the consulate began, a six-man rescue team organized by the CIA in Tripoli that included two Tier One Army Special Operators already in Tripoli on another assignment leave the capital to help.
However, they do not have a plane and end up chartering one too small to rescue the entire group in Benghazi and are required to make a round trip. They do not depart Benghazi with the last survivors and Ambassador Chris Stevens’ body until 10 a.m. the next day.
The CIA says that the Tripoli rescue team landed in Benghazi at 1:15 a.m. on Sept 12. The Pentagon says it landed at 1:30 a.m. Another official discrepancy.
More than four hours later, just before 5:26 a.m., former SEAL Glen Doherty, who arrived from Tripoli with the rescue team, and former SEAL Tyrone Woods are killed on the CIA annex roof by a mortar.
THE AMBASSADOR IS STILL MISSING
Security personnel at Blue Mountain Group receive a photograph of the ambassador’s body in a morgue at 7:15 a.m. At that point, Stevens’ body had still not been recovered from the hospital where Ansar Al Sharia, the presumed attackers, had surrounded it.
By 8:30 a.m., all KIA are accounted for, including the ambassador. The Pentagon’s critics say the president and defense secretary could have ordered more assets into Libya to help sooner.
Even by Wednesday morning, several challenges remained. Thirty Americans did not have a plane big enough to get them out of Benghazi; the U.S. consulate and CIA annex needed to be secured because sensitive documents remained at the consulate and annex; and an FBI team would eventually be held up in Tripoli and not be given access to the Benghazi sites for 24 days.
The two Marine FAST teams were not ordered to Libya until five hours after the attack was underway. The first FAST team didn’t arrive in Tripoli to secure the embassy until 8:56 p.m. on Sept. 12, nearly two hours after the rescued Americans had left Libya on a C-17 sent from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The second FAST team of Marines slated to go to Benghazi was never sent to Libya. Libyan looters and journalists spent the next 24 days rifling through papers and potential evidence at the compounds.
According to the senior U.S. defense official who briefed reporters on the timeline, “There has been a great deal of speculation about the use of or desirability of military responses. Some have indicated manned and unmanned aircraft options would have changed the course of events. Unfortunately, no aircraft options were available to be used or effective.”
According to a source who debriefed those who were at the CIA annex that night, “When they asked for air support, they were told they could have an unarmed drone.”