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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. When the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack this past September 11th, did the U.S. military respond too slowly or turn down requests for assistance? Were CIA personnel at another site in Benghazi, a mile away, told not to respond? Those allegations have aired on Fox News, attributed to CIA officers and to the father of a CIA contractor who was killed in Benghazi.
The CIA has disputed the charges that its officers were told to stand down and it has now released a timeline with new details about what happened that night. To talk more about this, we're joined now by retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane, who has remained in close touch with key security officials who were involved in the response to the attack. General Keane, welcome to the program once again.
GENERAL JACK KEANE: Oh, glad to be here, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's begin with the question of the CIA's response as you understand it. I understand there was a CIA compound about a mile from the Benghazi consulate and they got a call on the night of September 11th when the attack began. What happened at that point?
KEANE: Yes, they received an alarm bell and a call almost immediately upon the insurgents and terrorists, you know, storming the gate. They essentially did come through the front gate because there wasn't much protection there. What happened then is the chief of base at the CIA annex organized very rapidly a quick reaction force of a half dozen or so of his contract security, direct contract security people who all have either CIA background experience or military experience.
In addition to that, he was trying to organize some militia to accompany them and also to get some heavy machine guns. And it's been somewhat misunderstood and somewhat misrepresented what took place there. From the time they got the call to the time they left was 24 minutes and that's been verified now by surveillance tapes which will be made available to, you know, Senator Lieberman's committee as well as to the investigation that Secretary Clinton has ordered.
SIEGEL: These are surveillance tapes taken from the consulate itself and the CIA's looked at them and seen who was where when?
KEANE: This is tapes taken from the CIA base so they know when people left and when they returned, and there's also surveillance tapes, as I understand it, from the consulate as well. Now, I think from a practical matter, what happened here is the leader of the quick reaction force is working with the chief of base and he knows that he can go whenever he's ready. Meanwhile, his people are loading up equipment, ammunition, weapons, et cetera.
They're in vehicles. The vehicles are cranking, and every minute they're sitting out there seems like an hour. But meanwhile, they're trying to coordinate and facilitate the movement. At some point, the leader of the quick reaction force said, look, I'm going to go. This is taking too long. And the chief of base said, yeah, go. And out they went. They got delayed at the militia checkpoint as expected. They tried to get some machine guns from those guys.
They couldn't make it work, and they dismounted from their vehicles, moved on foot. Some Libyan militia did accompany them, and they entered the compound, fortunately, to be able to rescue everybody who was still alive and bring them back to the CIA annex by way of an ambushing route where their tires were all shot out. So there were no disobeying orders and the team left under that level of frustration.
The leader of the quick reaction force left when he was ready. There was no orders telling him to stand down, and I think the people sitting in the vehicles outside waiting for the leader of the quick reaction force just misunderstood what was taking place.
SIEGEL: Now, to be clear here, there wasn't one attack that night in Benghazi. There were two. After the consulate attack, hours later after people from the consulate had been moved to the CIA annex, the CIA base about a mile away, that compound came under attack and that's where the final two deaths occurred. Have I got that right?
KEANE: Yes, you do. I mean, there were actually two attacks there. But in the meantime, the embassy had deployed a force consisting of CIA direct security people again and some U.S. military, and a medical team flew them from Tripoli to Benghazi, and that force joined the people at the CIA annex, and also with the help of Libyan militia was responsible for the evacuation of the CIA annex.
In the second attack at the annex, it consisted of a mortar attack, about four or five mortars, most of them were errant. But one of them, unfortunately, landed right on top of the building where we had in place a machine gun team, where two of our people were there. That was security person Woods and security person Doherty. They both died as a result of that attack, tragically, and two others were wounded.
And, of course, everybody at that base evacuated soon after that.
SIEGEL: General Keane, I want to ask you more broadly about the military response to what happened in Benghazi. How quickly did the military respond, with which forces, what logically made sense to do for the military and what was done?
KEANE: Yeah, sure. The military response is under the authority of General Carter Ham, who's the combat and commander of AFRICOM, which Libya is a part of.
SIEGEL: The African Command, this is.
KEANE: That's correct. And so what happened then, he happened to be in the Pentagon at the time, so facilitated coordination with General Dempsey, the chairman of joint chiefs; Secretary Panetta, the secretary of defense; the national security adviser Donilon; the White House chief of staff; and certainly Director Dave Petraeus. But as soon as they realized there was an attack ongoing at the consulate, General Ham asked for the National Mission Response Force, which is a classified force based on the East Coast of the United States, 24/7 on alert, the shortest alert string we have to go anyplace in the world.
They had their own C-17 aircraft dedicated, helicopters loaded on board, prepackaged, ammunition prepackaged. They deployed and traveled to Sigonella by flight, and when they arrived at Sigonella and unloaded, the annex had already been evacuated so they were re-missioned and ordered back to base in the United States.
SIEGEL: Sigonella, we're talking about a base in Sicily...
KEANE: That's in Italy, that's correct.
SIEGEL: ...in the Mediterranean. The utility of...
KEANE: Now, those were ground forces and there were no other forces that were available and that's why he had to request forces from outside of AFRICOM's command and control. General Ham also requested a similar force that is part of the European command that - this is a classified force, special operations again. They were in central Europe training. They moved them to a base, got them equipped for combat and moved them to Sigonella.
And when they arrived there, they also were told that the CIA annex had been evacuated. The problem we have is AFRICOM has no assigned forces stationed in anywhere near Libya. So we had to depend - he had to depend on alerting forces to come from the continent of Europe and the continent of North America to participate in a firefight.
SIEGEL: Before this consulate came under attack, is it your sense that security at that facility was inadequate, things were done wrong for it?
KEANE: The consulate was essentially defenseless, Robert. And in view of the six attacks in Benghazi from April to the horrific one that the consulate had to deal with and two on the embassy before that, a decision should have been made, certainly, after the second consulate attack in Benghazi where they blew a hole in the wall. Decisions should have been made to either defend this consulate property as we do diplomatic posts in Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad, Iraq, or close it down.
And we should never have left it in a defenseless status that it was in. That was certainly tragic and, frankly, irresponsible.
SIEGEL: So I hear you saying, yes, at the consulate in Benghazi there was a lack of preparedness, insufficient security, but nobody's hands were tied in responding to the crisis that erupted there.
KEANE: No, absolutely not. I know that for a fact in dealing with General Ham and Director Petraeus myself.
SIEGEL: Well, General Keane, thank you very much for talking with us.
KEANE: You're welcome, Robert. Glad to talk to you.
SIEGEL: U.S. Army General Jack Keane, retired U.S. Army general who was the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.