Witnesses differ with U.S. over when Libya consulate attack began

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 12, 2012 

— Witnesses in Benghazi, Libya, provide a chronology for the attack Sept. 11 on the U.S. consulate here that differs in significant ways from timelines released by U.S. officials in Washington, raising more questions about how the assault unfolded and the speed with which Americans at a nearby CIA annex responded to calls for help from the consulate.

The versions of the attack told here indicate that the last visitor who met with Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the assault on the consulate, departed at least 45 minutes earlier than U.S. officials in Washington have said. Witnesses here also suggest that the attack may have begun as many as 15 minutes earlier than officials in Washington have said.

Witnesses also said there was no indication that anyone in the U.S. diplomatic compound was aware before the assault that protests had broken out in neighboring Egypt over an inflammatory film about the Prophet Muhammad that was produced in the United States.

The differences in the timelines could mean that CIA officers stationed in a compound just 1.2 miles away may have waited as long as 40 minutes before setting out to assist the besieged consulate and might not have arrived there until more than an hour after the attack began. A timeline released by the CIA says help was dispatched after just 25 minutes and that it took the rescue squad 25 minutes to arrive.

At a minimum, the witness accounts suggest that after two months, the U.S. government still may not know the basic sequence of events and when key moments in the assault occurred.

What took place in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11 and the early morning of Sept. 12 is the subject of at least three congressional hearings this week, beginning with a closed session of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee Tuesday and ending with separate sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees Thursday. Interest in those hearings, already high, only increased with the resignation Friday of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned as the director of the CIA over an extramarital affair with his biographer, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Paula Broadwell.

What new information might be presented at those hearings isn’t clear. The hearings are closed to the public, and whatever details emerge most likely will come in the form of leaks from the participants.

But the timelines that have been offered by the State Department, the CIA and the Defense Department offer inconsistent versions of what took place during the deadliest assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in more than three decades. And any account of what meetings or discussions, if any, took place at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., as the events in Benghazi unfolded is still missing.

In addition to Stevens, a State Department computer expert, Sean Smith, died at the consulate. Two CIA security contractors, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died several hours later when assailants attacked the CIA annex, to which survivors of the assault on the consulate had fled.

According to witnesses, Stevens had arrived in Benghazi on Sept. 10 for a four-day visit, his first extensive stay in this city since he assumed the ambassador’s post in May.

On the evening of Sept. 11, Stevens met with the Turkish consul here, Ali Sait Akin, in what everyone agrees was his last official act. While State Department officials said Stevens escorted the Turkish consul out of the compound at 8:30 p.m., a guard at the compound and an official familiar with the meeting said Akin left at 7:45 p.m.

A 31-year-old security guard employed by a British contracting company, the Blue Mountain Group, said he distinctly remembered the time of the meeting because about a half-hour before Akin was scheduled to meet with Stevens, the ambassador approached the guard, introduced himself and asked what security measures were needed to allow the Turkish consul to enter, including what kind of badge the Turkish delegation needed to enter the compound. Stevens addressed the guard in Arabic and told him Akin would arrive at 6:30 p.m. for an hourlong meeting.

“He introduced himself. He said the Turkish consul is coming at 6:30 p.m. He asked me if I needed anything and how I was doing,” the guard said, asking that his name not be released for fear of reprisals from extremists for working with Americans. “He was a very nice guy. He didn’t treat you like he was the ambassador. I almost wish I had not met him, because I was so upset about what happened to such a nice person. . . . All the Americans were so nice.”

As the guard and Stevens spoke, the protests in Cairo had been going on for nearly two hours. Stevens didn’t mention the film to the guard, and no one from the compound warned the guard about possible protests throughout the night, the guard said.

Akin arrived on time and the men met for an hour, the guard said. While they discussed security broadly, they didn’t talk about the film, the protests or the Sept. 11 anniversary, an official familiar with the meeting, who spoke only on the condition of the anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told McClatchy. After the meeting, Stevens and Akin chatted for about 15 minutes as they strolled around the compound, and Akin left at 7:45 p.m.

The guard made a note of the time of Akin’s arrival and departure in a book in which the guards tracked all movements, from official visits to when the cook arrived, he said.

As of four days ago, no U.S. or Libyan official had questioned Akin about his meeting with Stevens, according to the official familiar with the meeting.

From the time the guard’s shift started at 4 p.m., Stevens didn’t leave the compound. The State Department, in a briefing Sept. 12, said Stevens retired to his bedroom at 9 p.m.

State Department officials have said the attack started at 9:40 p.m., a time that the CIA timeline also sets as the approximate beginning. A Pentagon account of its response said the assault started at 9:42 p.m.

But two guards at the compound told McClatchy that the attack began earlier; one said at 9:25 p.m. and the other at 9:35.

One guard, who was at the main gate and placed the assault’s beginning at 9:25 p.m., said a colleague stationed at a side gate about 25 yards away had alerted him by radio that attackers were approaching. The guard said he stuck his head out a window in the compound’s wall and saw the attackers on one side of the road, near where his colleague was stationed, and Libyan police on the other side of the road fleeing. He said he hit the alarm button to alert the compound that it was under attack.

Behind the compound, at a nearby restaurant, a Western diplomat who was having dinner heard a mortar round go off around 9:30 p.m., presumably after the attackers had arrived at the compound. When he was told that U.S. officials put the start of the attack at 9:40 p.m. he paused and said he was dubious. “It was no later than 9:40 p.m., maximum,” he said, after a long pause. The diplomat asked that neither he nor the country he represents be identified, also because of the sensitivity of the matter.

In its account Sept. 12, the State Department said the attackers set fire to the main consulate building 35 minutes after the assault began. But the Western diplomat said he saw flames rising from the compound 10 minutes after he heard the mortar round explode. In between, he said, he heard gunfire. The diplomat said he knew Stevens was inside but never dreamed that he was in danger.

“I saw the smoke and heard the bullets but not in a rapid way,” the diplomat said. “I was sure Chris was out of there” by then.

Stevens died from suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the emergency room doctor who treated him at Benghazi Medical Center.

Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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