WASHINGTON — The military might have been able to prevent two of the four U.S. deaths in Benghazi if commanders had known more about the intensity of the sporadic gunfire directed at the CIA installation where Americans had taken refuge and had pressed to get a rescue team there faster, according to senior military leaders.
In closed-door testimony to Congress earlier this year, top military officers said that after the first attack on the main U.S. diplomatic outpost on Sept. 11, 2012, they thought the fighting had subsided and the Americans who had fled to the CIA base about a mile away were safe. In fact, they were facing intermittent small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades around midnight and had returned fire. Then the attackers dispersed.
Hours later, at first light, an 11-minute mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attack slammed into the CIA annex, killing security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
In hindsight, retired Gen. Carter Ham, then head of the U.S. military command in Africa, said he would have pressed Libyan contacts in the defense ministry and other officials to help speed up the evacuation of Americans from Benghazi.
Also, a special operations team that had been dispatched from Croatia to Sicily after the first attack might have made it to Benghazi, if a host of variables were ideal — a quick departure, wind direction and speed, and an unobstructed runway to land a U.S. aircraft.
Ham said "in a perfect world, with no other disruptions or distractions," it could have happened.
As it turned out, a six-man security team, including Special Forces personnel that arrived at Benghazi airport at 1:30 a.m., was held up there for hours by Libyan militia.
"In my view, that time delay, that inability of the team to get off of the Benghazi airport and get to the annex and back I think allowed sufficient time for the second attack to be organized and conducted," said Ham, who was in Washington at the time of the attacks.
Two House panels — Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform — interviewed nine military officers earlier this year, and the testimony was released this week.
For the military, the fog of war shrouded Benghazi even before the night of Sept. 11.
The first assault, about 9:40 p.m. local time, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith, was the first news to some military leaders that the U.S. even had a diplomatic mission in the Libyan port city — and that Stevens was there even though Benghazi was considered a dangerous, near-lawless city after the fall of dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
In a very short time, many in the military, including Ham, would then learn about the CIA annex. In his testimony, Ham said he was certain that someone in his command knew of the existence of the facilities in Benghazi, but he acknowledged that the crisis was "not the ideal time to become aware of such facilities."
Throughout the night, the information relayed to military officers in Tripoli, up the chain of command to AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and the Pentagon in Washington was incomplete and often contradictory. And that complicated efforts to mobilize personnel and aircraft to get Americans out of Libya.
"Omniscience is for God only," said a member of the U.S. Army who was operations director for the Special Operations Command Africa, and whose name was omitted from the testimony.
After the first attack, Ham and other military leaders were focused on a potential hostage situation, unaware that Stevens was already dead from smoke inhalation. They were under the impression that the Americans at the annex were safe, and none of the information they received suggested otherwise.
Retired Vice Adm. Charles "Joe" Leidig Jr., who was Ham's deputy, said the Americans weren't requesting military reinforcements to respond to the sporadic gunfire, but rather were seeking a plane to get out.
"Once that indirect fire was over, they said 'we're going to get out of this annex, we're going to get to the Benghazi airfield,' and now what they wanted was lift capability at Benghazi airfield," Leidig said.
A U.S. defense attache in Tripoli, who was relaying information up the chain of command that night, said he didn't learn of the nighttime gunfire until a day or two later.
Americans at the CIA base were confident they could deal with the gunfire. The intelligence official who was the chief of base told the Senate Intelligence Committee in December 2012 that "until the mortar attack, we were pretty comfortable that we could stave off any type of ground assault on the annex."
Throughout the night, the military struggled to "level the bubble," ensuring that all had the same information from the disparate sources of cellphone calls, drone details and word from Libyan officials.
At the time of the second attack, the few military officers in Tripoli were helping evacuate the U.S. Embassy there, figuring out who could drive the armored vehicles to a classified site.
The testimony from nine military officials captures the difficulty for a military hamstrung by limited intelligence and far-flung U.S. forces. Officials grappled throughout the night with what they called the "tyranny of distance," and, according to the former operations director, the reality that "it was very foggy as to what were actual facts on the ground."
The testimony adds context to the bare-bones timeline the military released within weeks of the attack, but some questions remain unanswered.
Libya, after months of a U.S.-led air campaign and the fall of Gadhafi, was a nation of militias battling for turf and other Libyans helping provide security to U.S. personnel.
Alerted to the first attack, the U.S. military repositioned an unmanned drone from Derna, Libya, to Benghazi, but the dark of night made it difficult for the Predator to provide reliable information.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered two special operations teams — the one in Croatia and another in the United States — to get ready to deploy. He also issued a similar order to an anti-terrorism team in Rota, Spain.