The CIA rushed security operatives to an American diplomatic compound in Libya within 25 minutes after it had come under attack and played a more central role in the effort to fend off a night-long siege than has been publicly acknowledged, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday.
The agency mobilized the evacuation effort, took control of an unarmed U.S. military drone to map possible escape routes, dispatched an emergency security team from Tripoli, the capital, and chartered aircraft that ultimately carried surviving U.S. personnel to safety on Sept. 12, U.S. officials said.
The account, which was provided to news organizations Thursday by senior U.S. intelligence officials, is the most detailed chronology presented so far of an attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, including two CIA security officers. The attack has become a flash point in the U.S. presidential campaign.
The decision to provide a comprehensive account of the attack five days before the election is likely to be regarded with suspicion, particularly among Republicans who have accused the Obama administration of misleading the public by initially describing the assault as a spontaneous eruption that began as a protest of an anti-Islamic video.
U.S. officials said they decided to offer a detailed account of the CIA’s role, however, to rebut media reports that have suggested that agency leaders delayed sending help to State Department officials seeking to fend off a heavily armed mob.
Instead, U.S. intelligence officials insisted that CIA operatives in Benghazi and Tripoli made decisions rapidly throughout the assault with no interference from Washington, even while acknowledging that CIA security forces were badly outmatched and largely unable to mobilize Libyan security teams until it was too late.
Among the new disclosures is that the CIA station chief in Tripoli sent an emergency security force, with about a half-dozen agency operatives as well as two U.S. military personnel, to Benghazi aboard a hastily chartered aircraft while the attack was underway.
The CIA team attempted to organize an effort to make its way to a hospital where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had been taken and was thought to be still alive. But the team was held up by Libyan officials at the airport and scrapped the plan to reach Stevens after learning that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain.
U.S. officials also formally acknowledged for the first time that the annex in Benghazi to which U.S. diplomatic personnel were evacuated was a CIA base that the agency had established as its first stronghold in Libya before autocrat Moammar Gaddafi was overthrown late last year.