On September 11, 2012, I was in Amman, Jordan, part of my routine international visits as deputy director of the CIA. I had already been to Israel and was due the next day to depart for Saudi Arabia. I had dined that night with the head of the Jordanian military and the head of Jordanian intelligence, and upon returning to the hotel I checked in with Washington and caught up on e-mail before going to bed. Earlier in the day I had seen reports about an incident in Cairo that, although troubling, seemed to have ended without too much damage and with no injuries.
It wasn’t long before I was woken from a sound sleep by a knock on the door from one of my assistants, who told me that another incident had taken place, this one at the State Department facility in Benghazi, and that CIA security officers had responded in order to assist. My assistant told me that one State Department officer had been killed and the ambassador’s whereabouts were unknown. She said that everyone else had relocated to the CIA base in Benghazi and was believed safe, adding that our chief of station (COS) in Tripoli was sending security officers as reinforcements from Tripoli to Benghazi.
Then, early the next morning, my assistant banged on my door again to tell me that the CIA base was now under heavy attack. I threw on some sweats and made my way to my command post, just down the hall from my room.
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The city of Benghazi was vitally important in Libya. It had been the center of much of the opposition to Muammar Qadhafi for years, and it remained a key outpost used by the United States to understand developments during the revolution and to influence key players in eastern Libya after Qadhafi. CIA had established a presence in Benghazi with the mission of collecting intelligence—contrary to some press reporting, it did not play any role in moving weapons from Libya to the opposition in Syria and neither did any other CIA officer or facility in Libya.
Normally I would not be able to confirm the existence of a CIA base overseas, let alone describe its mission. But because of the tragic events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012—and the controversial aftermath—the Agency’s role there has since become declassified, which allows me to discuss it here.
The CIA mission in Benghazi is worth discussing because it’s important to explain what happened—and what didn’t happen—in Benghazi on that fateful day.
Muammar Qadhafi’s departure from the scene in Libya in 2011 was a good thing in that it prevented the slaughter of thousands of his own citizens. But what followed was a failed state that provided room for extremist groups to flourish. At the end of the day, are the Libyan people better off after their revolution than before? I’m not so sure. Certainly what occurred in Libya was a boon to al Qaeda all across North Africa and deep in the Sahel, which includes parts of Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. The fledgling government that replaced Qadhafi’s lacked even a rudimentary ability to govern and militias with various ideologies reigned in large parts of the country.
Because of this lack of governance, during the spring and summer of 2012, the security situation across Libya, deteriorated. CIA analysts accurately captured this situation, writing scores of intelligence pieces describing in detail how the situation in Libya was becoming more and more dangerous. One of them from July was titled Libya: Al Qaeda Establishing Sanctuary. These pieces were shared broadly across the executive branch and with the members and staff of the intelligence committees in Congress.
With the anniversary of 9/11 on the horizon and the security situation throughout much of the Arab world in flux, in early September 2012 the CIA had sent out to all its stations and bases worldwide a cable warning about possible attacks. There was not any particular intelligence regarding planned attacks; we routinely sent such cables each year on the anniversary of 9/11—but we did want our people and their US government colleagues to be extra vigilant.
We had also sent an additional cable to Cairo because we had picked up specific intelligence from social media that there might be a violent demonstration there in reaction to an obscure film made in the United States that many Muslims believed insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The social media posting encouraged demonstrators to storm our embassy and kill Americans. It turned out that our embassy in Cairo had independently picked up the same social media report and had already taken precautions. The ambassador and most of her staff were not at the Cairo embassy on 9/11/12 when a mob breached the walls of the compound, setting fires, taking down American flags, and hoisting black Islamic banners. News of what the protesters had accomplished in Cairo spread quickly through Arab media, including to Benghazi.
The State Department facility in Benghazi has been widely mischaracterized as a US consulate. In fact it was a Temporary Mission Facility (TMF), a presence that was not continuously staffed by senior personnel and that was never given formal diplomatic status by the Libyan government. The CIA base—because it was physically separate from the TMF—was simply called “the Annex.”
In the months leading up to the September 11 attacks, many assaults and incidents directed at US and other allied facilities occurred in Benghazi—roughly twenty at the TMF alone—and CIA analysts reported on every significant one, including an improvised explosive device (IED) that was thrown over the wall of the TMF, an attack on the convoy of the UN special envoy to Libya, and an assassination attempt against the British ambassador to Libya.
As a result of the deterioration in security in Libya, we at CIA at least twice reevaluated our security posture in Benghazi and made significant enhancements at the Annex. It was only later—after the tragedy of 9/11/12—that we learned that only a few security enhancements had been made at the TMF. CIA does not provide physical security for State Department operations. Why so few improvements were made at the TMF, why so few State Department security officers were protecting the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, why they allowed him to travel there on the anniversary of 9/11, and why they allowed him to spend the night in Benghazi are unclear. I would like to know the conversations that took place between Stevens and his security team when the ambassador decided to go visit Benghazi on 9/11/12. These were all critical errors. When I traveled to Libya, my security detail would not even allow me to spend the night in Tripoli, and the leader of my security team brought what seemed to me like a small army to Libya to protect me.
Now our personnel in Benghazi were under attack.
When I made it to the command post that morning, there was a security tent that covered two tables holding secure phone lines and computers capable of accessing CIA’s top secret network.
At CIA we make use of an instant messaging program called Sametime for informal quick communications among our personnel worldwide. I “sametimed” the Agency’s chief of station in Tripoli to ask him for an update and to see if I could help him in any way.
During our back-and-forth messaging over Sametime, the chief recounted what he knew about the attack on the Annex, which had by that time just concluded. He told me two officers had been killed in a mortar attack on the Annex—I simply typed, “I am sorry”—bringing the total number of Americans killed to four, including Ambassador Stevens, who had been reported dead at a Benghazi hospital. Stevens was a legend in the diplomatic corps for his understanding of Arab culture and for his ability to work effectively in it. The others were Sean Smith, a State Department communications officer, killed at the TMF, and Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, two security officers, both killed at the Annex.
Over our nearly two-hour on-again, off-again instant messaging conversation, the COS said that he had decided to pull his people out of Benghazi and was working on getting transportation for them and the State Department personnel back to Tripoli. I asked him several times if he needed anything, if I could help in any way. He said he thought he had everything he needed at the moment. I told him that I wanted “to know when everyone is safe,” adding that I was heading to the embassy in Amman and that he could reach me there. I signed off by typing, “Hang in there. I am praying for you.” When I stepped away from the computer, I told my staff that I was very impressed with how the COS was handling a very difficult situation and that I was proud of him. He was calm and determined—and was making all the right decisions.
From the embassy in Jordan, I called CIA Director David Petraeus and told him that I thought I should cut my trip short. He agreed. I hung up the phone and told my staff, “We are going home.”
There are a number of myths about what happened during the nighttime and early-morning hours of the Benghazi attacks. One misconception is that there was a single four-hour-long battle. Another myth is that the attacks were well-organized, planned weeks or even months in advance. In fact, there were three separate attacks that night, none of them showing evidence of significant planning, but each of them carried out by Islamic extremists, some with connections to al Qaeda, and each attack more potent than the one before. Since the definition of terrorism is violence perpetrated against persons or property for political purposes, each attack in Benghazi was most definitely an act of terrorism—no matter the affiliation of the perpetrators, no matter the degree of planning, and no matter whether the attack on the TMF was preceded by a protest or not (an issue that would take on enormous political importance in the weeks and months ahead).
The first attack was on the State Department’s Temporary Mission Facility. We know from having monitored social media and other communications in advance that the demonstration and violence in Cairo were sparked by people upset over a YouTube video that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad negatively. We believe that in Benghazi—over six hundred miles away—extremists heard about the successful assault on our embassy in Egypt and decided to make some trouble of their own, although we still do not know their motivations with certainty. Most likely they were inspired by the prospect of doing in Benghazi what their “brothers” had done in Cairo. Some may have been inspired by a call Ayman al-Zawahiri— the leader of al Qaeda in Pakistan—had made just the day before for Libyans to take revenge for the death of a senior al Qaeda leader of Libyan origin in Pakistan. Still others might have been motivated by the video—although I should note that our analysts never said the video was a factor in the Benghazi attacks. Abu Khattala, a terrorist leader and possibly one of the ring leaders of the attacks, said that he was in fact motivated by the video. Khattala is now in US custody and under indictment for the role he played in the assault.
I believe that, with little or no advance planning, extremists in Benghazi made some phone calls, gathering a group of like-minded individuals to go to the TMF. When they attacked, at about 9:40 p.m. local time, the assault was not well organized—they seemed to be more of a mob who intended to breach the compound and see what damage they could do.
When you assess the information from the video feed from the cameras at the TMF and the Annex, there are few signs of a well-thought-out plan, few signs of command and control, few signs of organization, few signs of coordination, few signs of even the most basic military tactics in the attack on the TMF. Some of the attackers were armed with small arms; many were not armed at all. No heavy weapons were seen on the videotape. Many of the attackers, after entering through the front gate, ran past buildings to the other end of the compound, behaving as if they were thrilled just to have overrun the compound. They did not appear to be looking for Americans to harm. They appeared intent on looting and conducting vandalism. When they did enter buildings, they quickly exited with stolen items. One young man carried an Xbox, another had a suit bag stolen from an American’s quarters. The rioters started to set fires, but there was no indication that they were targeting anyone. They entered one building with Americans hiding inside, did not find them, and quickly departed. Through it all, none of the Department of State security officers at the TMF fired a weapon.
Clearly, this was a mob looting and vandalizing the place—with tragic results. It was a mob, however, made up of a range of individuals, some of whom were hardened Islamic extremists. And it was a mob that killed two Americans by setting fires to several buildings. After reviewing the information in the video, I was in favor of releasing it publicly. Doing so would have helped Americans better understand the nature of the attack. I do not know why the White House did not release the information—this despite urgings to do so from Jim Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and from other senior intelligence officials, including me. The videos, at this writing, still have not been declassified.
The ambassador and Sean Smith were in the main building when a fire was set there, and the thick black smoke that quickly enveloped the building suffocated them. There is no evidence that the attackers were targeting the ambassador specifically or U.S. officials generally when they set that fire or any of the other fires that night.
About an hour after the mob stormed the compound, officers from the CIA base came to the aid of their State Department colleagues. The Agency security team fired the first American shots of the night, exchanging gunfire with the attackers, pushing them back, and then helping the State Department security officers search (unsuccessfully) for the ambassador. They recovered the body of Sean Smith, and unable to find the ambassador, organized a retreat to the Annex.
The second attack of the evening was on the CIA base. This attack occurred just after midnight and within minutes of the CIA team’s arrival back from the TMF. My assessment is that some of those who had conducted the assault on the TMF—the best armed and most highly motivated of the group—followed the State Department officers back to the Annex after they ran the roadblock. The attackers on the Annex were armed with light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades and CIA and State Department security officers drove them off in what was a short firefight. But, unlike at the TMF, this was a more organized attack with the clear goal of killing Americans.
Three and a half hours after the start of the assault on the TMF, reinforcements arrived in Benghazi in the form of CIA and military personnel who had managed to charter an aircraft from Tripoli and fly to Benghazi to assist their colleagues. After being delayed at the airport in Benghazi for some time, they arrived at the Annex at 5 a.m. Some of them took up fighting positions on the roof of the main building on the Agency base. They arrived with virtually no time to spare, as the third attack of the night was about to begin. There is no evidence that the final group of attackers followed our officers from the airport to the Annex, as has been alleged in the press.
It was at approximately five fifteen a.m. that the third, final, and most sophisticated attack of the night occurred. My subsequent analysis is that after the extremists were driven from the CIA Annex the first time, they regrouped, acquiring even heavier weapons and most likely additional fighters. Most important, they returned with mortars. Five mortar rounds were fired and three made direct hits on the roof of the main building, killing Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and seriously injuring others.
Long after the attack, I asked myself, “Why did the attackers use only five mortar rounds?” They had time and space to fire additional rounds as they had driven our security officers from their positions.
The logical answer to me is clear—they had only five mortars. If this had been an assault with days, weeks, or months of planning, the terrorists would have been much better armed and they would have brought those weapons to the first assault at the TMF as well as the first assault on the CIA base. And they would have had more than just five mortar rounds for the second assault on the Annex. Libya, after all, is a country awash in weapons, including mortars. Instead all three were opportunistic attacks that escalated in sophistication during the night as the extremists had more time to organize.
As awful as it was, the events of the evening could have been much worse without the incredible heroism of a handful of CIA officers and military personnel. Had CIA officers not responded to the TMF, there undoubtedly would have been more fatalities there. During the fight at the CIA base, the actions of two Special Forces officers stood out. In Tripoli, when the first attacks began, they responded as you would expect our country’s most elite soldiers to respond. They volunteered to go to Benghazi and stand shoulder to shoulder with our officers in a firefight with terrorists. While they were not technically in the chain of command, their training and experience, their excellent judgment, and their calm demeanor under fire effectively resulted in their taking charge at the Annex. Everyone looked to them for leadership, and they provided it. And they were the ones who recovered the dead and wounded officers from the rooftop immediately after the mortar attack.
One of our injured officers on the roof where Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed was nearly unconscious and unable to move. Fearing that the mortar fire could resume at any moment, the two Special Forces operatives improvised a maneuver in which one of them strapped the six-foot-three, 240-pound man to the other’s back. In a supreme test of strength, focus, and determination, the soldier bearing our wounded officer scaled a wall at the edge of the roof and then worked his way down a rickety ladder—all under the constant threat of enemy fire. Both Special Forces officers received awards for their bravery and heroic actions in response to the tragedy in Benghazi.