As the events were unfolding, the Pentagon began to move special operations forces from Europe to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. U.S. aircraft routinely fly in and out of Sigonella and there are also fighter jets based in Aviano, Italy. But while the U.S. military was at a heightened state of alert because of 9/11, there were no American forces poised and ready to move immediately into Benghazi when the attack began.
The Pentagon would not send forces or aircraft into Libya — a sovereign nation — without a request from the State Department and the knowledge or consent of the host country. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the information coming in was too jumbled to risk U.S. troops.
According to the detailed timeline senior officials laid out Thursday, the first call to the CIA base came in at about 9:40 p.m., and less than 25 minutes later about the team headed to the consulate. En route they tried to get additional assistance, including some heavier weapons, but were unable to get much aid from the Libyan militias.
The team finally got to the consulate, which was engulfed in heavy diesel smoke and flames, and they went in to get the consulate staff out. By 11:30 p.m. all of the U.S. personnel — except Stevens — left and drove back to the annex, with some taking fire from militants along the way.
By that time, one of the Defense Department's unarmed Predator drones had arrived to provide overhead surveillance.
At the CIA base, militants continued the attack, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans returned fire, and after about 90 minutes — or around 1 a.m. — it subsided.
Around that time, the second CIA team — which numbered about six and included two military members — arrived at the airport, where they tried to figure out where Stevens was and get transportation and added security to find him.
Intelligence officials said that, after several hours, the team was finally able to get Libyan vehicles and armed escorts, but by then had learned that the ambassador was probably dead and the security situation at the hospital was troublesome. The State Department has said that a department computer expert, Sean Smith, also was killed.
The second CIA team headed to the annex, and arrived after 5 a.m., just before the base came under attack again.
According to officials, militants fired mortar rounds at the building, killing two of the security officers who were returning fire. The mortar attack lasted just 11 minutes.
And less than an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan military unit arrived and was able to take the U.S. personnel to the airport.
U.S. officials have said there were two unarmed drones in the area at various points of the night. One was overhead in Libya and moved to the area quickly and another was called in at a later point to provide surveillance.
Meanwhile, two Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeking an explanation of documents recently found in the Benghazi complex. The documents, disclosed in the publication Foreign Policy, included drafts of two letters worrying that the compound was under troubling surveillance and complaining that the Libyan government failed to fulfill requests for additional security.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and national security subcommittee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, pressed for answers on whether the documents indicated the possible involvement of Libyan government personnel in the assault.
"These documents paint a disturbing picture indicating that elements of the Libyan government might have been complicit in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the compound and the murder of four Americans," the letter said. "It also reiterates the fact that the U.S. government may have had evidence indicating that the attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a preplanned terrorist attack that included prior surveillance of the compound as a target."
The Foreign Policy article said some of the documents are clearly marked as State Department correspondence. Others are unsigned printouts of messages to local and national Libyan authorities. The article said two unsigned draft letters are both dated Sept. 11 and express strong fears about the security situation at the compound.
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report," said one of the documents quoted in the story and addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Benghazi. "Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission. The police car stationed where this event occurred was number 322."
Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.
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