U.S. Special Forces and Marines were ordered to Benghazi as deadly attacks were underway on the U.S. consulate and a nearby CIA compound but the units never left staging areas in Italy, Pentagon officials said Friday.
F-16 fighter-attack squadrons at the Aviano airbase in Italy were also on alert for possible air support in a rescue operation. The F-16s never left the ground in the initial confusion over what was happening in Benghazi and the scrambled efforts to account for and evacuate U.S. personnel, the officials said.
An unarmed Air Force Predator drone that had been operating over Libya to monitor the movements of tribal militias was also diverted to Benghazi where it came under the operational control of the CIA, the officials said. However, the intelligence from the reconnaissance drone was of little use to those making decisions in Washington.
"The entire U.S. government was acting from a cold start," said Pentagon chief spokesman George Little in giving the most detailed account to date of the military’s response to the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
"We did respond," Little said in an effort to counter Obama administration critics who have charged that U.S. security failures left Stevens and others in an untenable situation. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "did order forces to move, but the fact of the matter is that those forces were not in place" until well after the attacks were over and all U.S. personnel had been airlifted to Tripoli, Little said.
The comments by DOD officials called into question whether U.S. forces in the region were in an adequate state of readiness to respond to attacks and threats against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel.
The DOD officials declined to comment on whether more U.S. military assets had been moved into the region and readiness had been upgraded since the Benghazi attacks.
House and Senate Republicans, and supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have charged that the Benghazi consulate essentially was left defenseless despite repeated warnings from Stevens and other State Department officials on the ground about the deteriorating security climate in the area dominated by local militias.
Last week, Panetta said that the muddled initial reports from Benghazi made it impossible for him to commit forces that might do more harm than good.
A day after the Benghazi attack, Defense and State Department officials gave a general timeline on what had happened showing U.S. officials in the consulate desperately attempted to get to what was described as a State Department "safe house" about a mile away. The "safe house," the CIA has now acknowledged, was actually a CIA compound for agents operating in the area.
The comments from DOD officials on Friday followed the CIA’s rejection of a Fox News report that charged that agents in the Benghazi compound were twice ordered to stand down in their efforts to come to the aid of U.S. personnel at the consulate.
While the attacks were underway, Panetta met at the Pentagon with Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, who was in Washington at the time for consultations. Together, they ordered a Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) of about 30 personnel based in Rota, Spain, to the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy.
In Sigonella, the Marine team was joined by U.S. Special Forces units from central Europe. A separate Special Forces unit from the U.S. was also ordered to Sigonella.
All of those units -- the Marines and the Special Forces -- "did arrive in the AOR (Area of Operations) at Sigonella," Little said. The units never left Sigonella, but were on standby in case a hostage situation developed, Little said.
A separate Marine FAST team, also from Rota, was sent on Sept. 12 to Tripoli, where the personnel from Benghazi had been evacuated. An additional FAST team was sent to guard against unrest in Sanaa, Yemen.