WASHINGTON (AP) — From Tripoli to Washington, military leaders struggled to learn what was happening in Libya and find a way to help when a diplomatic post and CIA compound in Benghazi came under attack the night of Sept. 11, 2012, and the next morning.
Spotty communications and a lack of nearby troops or planes at the ready frustrated their efforts. There were 10 uniformed service members in Libya when the call for help came, according to testimony to congressional investigators. They were based at the capital, Tripoli, some 600 miles from the nearly lawless port city of Benghazi, which had fallen under the control of militias since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
A timeline shows the military’s response to the attacks, based on the testimony of nine officers interviewed by congressional investigators (with approximate local times in Benghazi):
—9:40 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11: A large group of men rush into the diplomatic compound, firing guns and setting fires. A diplomatic security officer hustles visiting Ambassador Chris Stevens and computer specialist Sean Smith into a safe room in one of the residences.
The security officers and the ambassador use cellphones to call a CIA post about a mile away and the embassy in Tripoli. The alert — “We’re under attack” — is passed to the embassy’s defense attache and other officers who were there to help train and equip Libyan forces. The officers begin relaying the information up their chain of command, putting out word that U.S. aircraft may be needed for an evacuation and reaching out to Libyan forces for help.
—10:15 p.m.: In Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of the military’s joint Africa Command, in the same time zone as Libya, Rear Adm. Charles “Joe” Leidig Jr., is awakened by the phone: “I rolled over and got a report that there had been protesters, and they had overrun the facility in Benghazi, but that the ambassador was in a safe room and was safe.”
Until that moment, Leidig and others at AFRICOM didn’t know there was a temporary diplomatic post in Benghazi, or a secret CIA facility, or that the ambassador was visiting the city that night.
—10:30 p.m.: Gen. Carter Ham, then head of AFRICOM, gets word of the attack while visiting the Pentagon. It’s about 4:30 p.m. in Washington. He walks down the hall to tell Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they head upstairs to alert Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Dempsey and Panetta inform President Barack Obama.
—Until about 11:30 p.m.: The attack on the diplomatic post lasts about 45 minutes. Unable to break into the safe room, the attackers pour diesel fuel in the building and set its furniture afire. A security team from the CIA site, located about a mile away, arrives and helps repel the attackers.
The CIA and embassy security forces repeatedly try to rescue Stevens and Smith but are thwarted by blinding, noxious smoke. They discover Smith’s body in the safe room but can’t find the ambassador. Fearing the compound will again be overrun, the rest of the Americans — diplomatic security officers and CIA — flee by armored car to the CIA facility, sometimes referred to as the annex. They bring Smith’s body with them.
—11: 10 p.m.: The military diverts an unarmed drone from elsewhere in Libya to Benghazi, but its indistinct nighttime video isn’t much help.
A WARNING OVERLOOKED
—11:30 p.m.-1 a.m.: Soon after the group from the diplomatic post arrives, the secret CIA site also comes under sporadic fire from small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Security returns fire, and after 90 minutes it’s over. But key military leaders don’t know the CIA facility is under assault.
—Around midnight: The military hears conflicting reports about Stevens. Libyan leaders say the ambassador is alive and safe. Others say an American is at a hospital in Benghazi. This raises fears that Stevens may be held hostage by the militia controlling that hospital.
—Shortly after midnight: A six-man U.S. security team, including two Special Forces members, takes off from Tripoli on a chartered flight to Benghazi. Their plan: Go to the hospital and find Stevens.
Meanwhile, in Washington, senior defense officials make plans to deploy military teams from Spain, Croatia and the United States. But it will take hours for them to prepare, take off and cover the distance to Libya. (In the end, only the anti-terror team from Spain will complete the journey, arriving in Tripoli after the Americans have been evacuated.)
—1:30 a.m. Wednesday: The security team lands in Benghazi to look for the ambassador, but the members are detained at the airport by Libyan militia.
—2 a.m.: A military officer in Tripoli, who has been relaying updates to the Africa command center, hears word that some Americans in Benghazi have been wounded, but no details. He keeps pressing for a plane for evacuation. He’s told no U.S. plane will be available for hours.
Embassy and military officials, fearing the embassy in Tripoli could be targeted for a terror attack, decide to evacuate the staff to a more secure, classified location at dawn. Following State Department policy, staffers begin burning documents and smash computer hard drives with an ax.
SECOND DEADLY ATTACK
—Before dawn, Wednesday, Sept. 12: The security team is still at the Benghazi airport. One holdup: Libyan officials insist those in uniform change into civilian clothes. The team gets word that Stevens is believed to be dead, his body at a hospital. They change plans and, finally allowed to leave, head for the CIA compound to help defend and evacuate it. They arrive just before a deadly mortar attack begins.
—5:15 a.m.: Mortar fire hits the CIA roof, killing security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Other Americans are seriously injured. Ham says in hindsight that the 11-minute assault looked like a carefully targeted hit by well-trained militants.
—Around 6 a.m.: A Libyan military unit arrives to escort the Americans from the CIA post to the Benghazi airport for evacuation to Tripoli, aboard a Libyan plane. In Tripoli, the U.S. Embassy is in the midst of evacuating about three dozen people with the help of Defense Department personnel.
—Before 6:30 a.m.: After helping secure and then evacuate the embassy in Tripoli, Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, the leader of a four-man special operations group, decides his team should go help in Benghazi. He calls the special operations command for Africa to inform them, and is ordered not to go, but to remain in place safeguarding U.S. personnel in Tripoli.
Gibson later testifies that his flight would have arrived in Benghazi too late to help, and would have crossed paths with a plane bringing the wounded back to Tripoli.
—7:40 a.m.: The first evacuation plane, carrying the wounded, takes off from Benghazi. They are met at the Tripoli airport by the special ops team’s medic, who is credited with saving one man’s life.
—10 a.m.: A plane carrying the rest of the U.S. personnel, and the bodies of the four Americans who were killed, takes off from Benghazi for Tripoli.
—2:15 p.m.: A U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane sent from Germany arrives in Tripoli, ready to evacuate the Americans. Five hours later, the evacuees and the remains of the victims leave Libya.