The senior official noted that for people to understand the sequence of events in Benghazi, “it’s important to discuss the wider context of that tragic day.”
In the months before the attack, the official said, hundreds of reports surfaced of possible threats to U.S. citizens and facilities across the globe. In the Middle East and North Africa on Sept. 11, the official added, U.S. facilities in more than 16 countries were operating on a heightened force-protection level, based on specific threats.
“I would note … that there was no specific or credible threat that we knew of on the day that the attacks … occurred in Benghazi,” the official said.
The official acknowledged that since Sept. 11, many people have speculated on whether increased military intervention, including the use of manned and unmanned aircraft, might have changed the course of events in Libya that night.
“Unfortunately, no alternative or additional aircraft options were available within … [enough time] to be effective,” the official said. “Due to the incomplete intelligence picture on the ground, armed aircraft options were simply not feasible.”
The DOD timeline records that in the first hours following the initial attack, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conferred first with the president, and shortly after with senior officials including Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, who leads U.S. Africa Command. Africom’s area of responsibility includes Libya.
During those meetings, the official said, Panetta verbally ordered two fleet antiterrorism security team, or FAST, platoons to prepare to deploy from their base in Rota, Spain. The secretary also issued verbal prepare-to-deploy orders for a U.S. European Command special operations force then training in Central Europe and a second special operations force based in the United States.
At 6:30 p.m. EDT, according to the timeline, a six-person security team, including two DOD members, left the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli for Benghazi.
The official noted the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center staff, within hours of the attack, began planning support and contingency operations with transportation and special operations experts, as well as with representatives from the four services and Africa, Europe and Central commands. By 8:39 p.m., the official said, the command center had started issuing written orders for the forces the secretary had alerted.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the official said, a second unmanned, unarmed surveillance aircraft relieved the first, and at 11:15 p.m. — around 5 a.m. Sept. 12 in Benghazi — the second U.S. facility there, an annex near the consulate, came under mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
By 1:40 a.m. EDT Sept. 12, the first wave of Americans left Benghazi for Tripoli by airplane, with the second wave, including the bodies of the fallen, following at 4 a.m. A C-17 aircraft, under Africom direction, flew the evacuees from Tripoli to Germany later that day, the official said.
As the timeline makes clear, the official said, the evacuation took place before the FAST platoons or special operations forces arrived, although all were converging on Libya — noting repeatedly that DOD leaders lacked a clear picture of enemy, civilian and American positions in the area.
“There are people out there who have suggested that an overhead surveillance aircraft could have perfect visibility into what was happening on the ground, and on that basis alone, you could send in a team,” the official said. “That is not necessarily how things work.”
An overhead surveillance aircraft operating at night over a city can’t always help military members separate friend and foe on the ground, the official said.
“You get a lot of good information from a surveillance aircraft, … but it doesn’t necessarily provide you a complete and instant picture of what is happening on the ground. … If you’re going to undertake military action, you’d better have solid information before you decide to take the kinds of steps that are required to effectively complete a military mission of this sort,” the official told reporters.
Over the roughly 12 hours between the start of the attacks and the time the last Americans were evacuated from Benghazi, the official said, defense leaders postured forces to meet any contingencies that might develop, as there was no way to know in the early, “murky” stages whether the situation would be resolved within hours, days or longer.
“We absolutely had our forces arrayed in a way that could potentially respond to events that might unfold,” the official said. “We are an excellent military — the finest in the world. We’re always prepared. But we’re neither omniscient nor omnipresent.”