By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - CIA officials on the ground in Libya dispatched security forces to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi within 25 minutes and made other key decisions about how to respond to the waves of attacks on U.S. installations on September 11, a senior American intelligence official said on Thursday.
Officials in Washington monitored events through message traffic and a hovering U.S. military drone but did not interfere with or reject requests for help from officials in the line of fire, the official said.
The information emerged as officials made available on Thursday a timeline chronicling the U.S. response to the Benghazi attacks in which Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other American officials died. The material appears to refute claims by critics that officials in Washington delayed sending help to the besieged personnel.
The handling of the attack by the Obama administration and CIA has come under sharp criticism by supporters of Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the campaign ahead of the presidential election on November 6.
The senior intelligence official said that CIA officers in Benghazi, "responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible.
"The security officers in particular were genuine heroes. They quickly tried to rally additional local support and heavier weapons, and when that could not be accomplished within minutes, they still moved in and put their own lives on the line to save their comrades," the official said.
"At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could," the official said.
"There was no second-guessing those decisions being made on the ground, by people at every U.S. organization that could play a role in assisting those in danger. There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support," the official added.
OBAMA, CIA PUSH BACK AGAINST CRITICISM
Intelligence and other administration officials expressed particular dismay about a report on Fox News last week that alleged that armed CIA operatives near the U.S. compound in Benghazi were repeatedly told to "stand down" after asking for permission to assist on the night of September 11 and were also refused military backup by the CIA chain of command.
Following the initial broadcast of the Fox News report, Jennifer Youngblood, a CIA spokeswoman, denied that CIA had ever turned down requests for help from U.S. personnel in Benghazi.
"No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate," Youngblood said.
According to the timeline, around 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time, officials at the CIA's relatively fortified and well-defended base in Benghazi got a call from State Department officials at the U.S. diplomatic mission about a mile away that the less-fortified public mission complex had come under attack from a group of militants, the intelligence official said.
Other official sources said that the initial wave of attacks on the diplomatic mission involved setting fires using diesel fuel. The dense smoke created by the fuel both made it hard for people at the compound to breathe and to organize a response to the attack.
About 25 minutes after the initial report came into the CIA base, a team of about six agency security officers left their base for the public diplomatic mission compound.
Over the succeeding 25 minutes, the CIA team approached the compound, and tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to get local Libyan allies to bring them a supply of heavier weapons, and eventually moved into the burning diplomatic compound, the intelligence official said.
At around 11:10 p.m., a Defense Department drone, which had been on an unrelated mission some distance away, arrived in Benghazi to help officials on the ground gather information. By 11:30, U.S. personnel who had been working or staying at the mission had been rounded up except for Ambassador Stevens, who was missing, the intelligence official said.
When they tried to drive out of the diplomatic compound to return to the CIA base, however, the convoy carrying U.S. evacuees came under fire.
Once they got back to the CIA base, that installation itself came under fire from what the intelligence official described as small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. These patchy attacks went on for roughly 90 minutes, the intelligence official said.
CIA SENT TEAM FROM TRIPOLI
Around the same time, a CIA security team based in Tripoli, which included two U.S. military officers, landed at Benghazi airport. Upon its arrival, however, the team spent some time trying both to arrange local transport and to locate the missing Ambassador Stevens.
After some time trying to solve these problems, the security team that had flown in from Tripoli eventually arranged for an armed local escort and extra transportation, but decided not to go the hospital where they believed Stevens had been taken. In part this was because they had reason to believe Stevens was likely dead, and because security at the hospital was believed, at best, to be "uncertain," the intelligence official said.
Not long before dawn, the reinforcements from Tripoli managed to take themselves and a convoy of vehicles to the CIA base to prepare for an anticipated evacuation.
However, just after they arrived at the CIA base, the official said, a new round of attacks on that facility was launched, this time with mortars. Although the mortar attacks lasted only 11 minutes, two U.S. security officers were killed by a direct hit from one of the shells, the intelligence official said.
Finally, a bit less than an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan military unit arrived at the CIA base to help evacuate the compound of U.S. personnel to the Benghazi airport, the official added.
Over the next few hours, roughly 30 Americans, as well as the bodies of Stevens and the other three Americans killed during the attacks, were loaded on planes and flown out of the city, several U.S. officials said.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)