When the bodies of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base after the Sept. 11 attack, they were greeted by the president, the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense. Conspicuously absent was CIA Director David Petraeus.
Officials close to Mr. Petraeus say he stayed away in an effort to conceal the agency’s role in collecting intelligence and providing security in Benghazi. Two of the four men who died that day, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were former Navy SEAL commandos who were publicly identified as State Department contract security officers, but who actually worked as Central Intelligence Agency contractors, U.S. officials say.
The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.
The coordinated attacks stirred up a political hornet’s nest over whether the administration provided adequate security and whether it was forthcoming with its assessment of what happened. In the election season, that cast a shadow over the Obama administration’s foreign policy record.
Nearly eight weeks after the attacks, a complete accounting hasn’t emerged in public view. The brunt of the public criticism for security lapses has so far been directed at the State Department, rather than the CIA, which, by design, operates largely in the shadows. Critics in Congress say the CIA has used secrecy in part to shield itself from blame—a charge officials close to the agency deny.
This account of the CIA presence in Benghazi sheds new light on the events, and how the essentially covert nature of the U.S. operations there created confusion. Congressional investigators say it appears that the CIA and State Department weren’t on the same page about their respective roles on security, underlining the rift between agencies over taking responsibility and raising questions about whether the security arrangement in Benghazi was flawed.
The CIA’s secret role helps explain why security appeared inadequate at the U.S. diplomatic facility. State Department officials believed that responsibility was set to be shouldered in part by CIA personnel in the city through a series of secret agreements that even some officials in Washington didn’t know about.
It also explains why the consulate was abandoned to looters for weeks afterward while U.S. efforts focused on securing the more important CIA quarters. Officials say it is unclear whether the militants knew about the CIA presence or stumbled upon the facility by following Americans there after the attack on the consulate.
The CIA’s secrecy affected how the U.S. government dealt with the families of the two slain contractors. Kate Quigley, Mr. Doherty’s sister, said officials who visited her mother in Massachusetts identified themselves as State Department representatives. Officials said the State Department deferred to the CIA to contact the families and the “notification teams” included CIA officers.
“The details they gave us were very sparing,” Ms. Quigley said, adding they were “extremely professional, highly compassionate.”
The extent of the CIA role in Benghazi, and the central role the spy agency played in the run-up and aftermath of the attack, puts a spotlight on Mr. Petraeus, who took over as director of the agency last year.
At one point during the consulate siege, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned the CIA director directly to seek assistance. Real-time intelligence from the field was scarce and some officials at State and the Pentagon were largely in the dark about the CIA’s role.
Mr. Petraeus didn’t attend funerals held later for the two CIA contractors, irking some administration officials and CIA veterans.
After an attack in 2009 on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, one of the deadliest suffered by the agency, then-Director Leon Panetta immediately lifted the cover of the seven CIA officers and contractors killed, publicly acknowledged the agency’s loss, and attended several of the funerals.
In Libya, the relationship between the State Department and CIA was secret and symbiotic: The consulate provided diplomatic cover for the classified CIA operations. The State Department believed it had a formal agreement with the CIA to provide backup security, although a congressional investigator said it now appears the CIA didn’t have the same understanding about its security responsibilities.
The spy agency was the first to set up shop. It began building up its presence there soon after the Libyan revolution started in February 2011. The uprising overturned what had been a tight working relationship between the Gadhafi regime’s spy services and the Americans, creating a gap that the CIA presence sought to fill, officials said.
The CIA worked from a compound publicly referred to as the “annex,” which was given a State Department office name to disguise its purpose. The agency focused on countering proliferation and terrorist threats, said an American security contractor who has worked closely with CIA, the Pentagon and State. A main concern was the spread of weapons and militant influences throughout the region, including in Mali, Somalia and Syria, this person said.
Libyan officials say they were kept in the dark about what the CIA was doing in Benghazi. “The Americans had people coming and going with great frequency. Frankly, our records were never clear [about] who was out there” in Benghazi, said a senior Libyan government official in Tripoli.
In mid-2011, the State Department established its consulate in Benghazi, to have a diplomatic presence in the birthplace of the Libyan revolution. At the annex, many of the analysts and officers had what is referred to in intelligence circles as “light cover,” carrying U.S. diplomatic passports.
Protecting the CIA annex was a roughly 10-man security force. The State Department thought it had a formal agreement with the CIA that called for that force to be used in emergencies to bolster security for the consulate.
The State Department has been criticized by lawmakers and others for failing to provide adequate security for its ambassador, especially in light of an attack there in June and after other violence prompted the U.K. to pull out of the city. In October, Mrs. Clinton took responsibility for any security lapses.
Among U.S. diplomatic officials in Libya, the nearby CIA force and the secret agreement allayed concerns about security levels.
“They were the cavalry,” a senior U.S. official said of the CIA team, adding that CIA’s backup security was an important factor in State’s decision to maintain a consulate there.
In the months leading up to the attack, Mr. Stevens and others sent a series of diplomatic messages to the administration warning that security in Benghazi was deteriorating. Nevertheless, security at the consulate wasn’t beefed up and Mr. Stevens’s movements weren’t restricted, according to congressional investigators.
On the night of the attack, the consulate, on a 13-acre property, was protected by five American diplomatic security officers inside the walls, supported by a small group of armed Libyans outside. The CIA’s security force at the annex sometimes provided backup security for the ambassador when he traveled outside the consulate.
Outside of Tripoli and Benghazi, the nature of the security relationship between the consulate and the annex wasn’t widely known, and details about that arrangement are still the subject of dispute. The night of the attack, many top officials at the State Department in Washington weren’t initially aware that the annex had a security force that answered to the CIA and provided backup security for the consulate.
Soon after the shooting started, a diplomatic security officer at the consulate hit an alarm. By 9:40 p.m. local time—3:40 p.m. on the East Coast—the officer called the annex’s security team, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the diplomatic-security headquarters in Washington.
It took a seven-man team from the CIA security roughly 50 minutes to get to the consulate after it was alerted, according to administration officials.
Within 25 minutes, the team headed out of the annex to the consulate compound, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. It took another 25 minutes to reach the compound, in part because the team stopped to get heavy weapons and came under fire as they moved in, the official said.
The CIA team left the consulate around 11:30 p.m. with all American officials from the compound, except for the missing U.S. ambassador, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. They came under fire as they left.
Shortly after they arrived back at the annex, the annex began receiving small-arms fire and RPG rounds, the official said. The CIA security team returned fire and the attackers dispersed around 1 a.m.
The congressional investigator said the delay showed that the secret CIA-State security arrangement was inadequate.
“The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
At the State Department that night, officials frantically tried to find out what was happening. In recent interviews, some administration officials criticized the CIA for not being forthcoming with information.
At 5:41 p.m. Eastern time, Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Petraeus. She wanted to make sure the two agencies were on the same page.
Shortly before that call, at 4:30 p.m., the Pentagon’s command center had alerted Defense Secretary Panetta and others to the attack. Minutes later, the U.S. military’s Africa Command redirected an unarmed drone from its surveillance mission over militant camps to Benghazi. When the drone arrived at 5:11 p.m. Eastern time, cameras captured images of burning buildings, helping officials in Washington pinpoint which facilities had been targeted by militants.
But the images didn’t help the CIA team on the ground respond to the attacks, officials said.
Meanwhile, in Tripoli, another CIA team mobilized to provide additional security for the CIA annex and help evacuate Americans from Benghazi. The team went to the Tripoli airport with a suitcase full of cash to find a plane to fly to Benghazi. They were delayed because Libyan authorities insisted the Americans be accompanied by a larger Libyan force on the ground in Benghazi, which took time to assemble, U.S. officials say. Libyan officials attribute the delay to the Americans not sharing key logistical details with them.
Christopher Stevens killed in the Benghazi attack.
At about 7 p.m.—1 a.m. in Benghazi—the team touched down at the Benghazi airport. The team had to negotiate for transport into Benghazi, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. When the team learned the ambassador was missing and the annex attackers had dispersed, they focused on the security situation at the hospital, where the ambassador was thought to be.
By the time the team was able to arrange transportation with an armed escort, the intelligence official said, they had learned that the ambassador was almost certainly dead and the security at the hospital was unclear, so they decided to go to the annex to help with the evacuation. The ambassador was pronounced dead shortly after 2 a.m.
Using GPS locaters, team members raced to the annex, arriving at 5:15 a.m. Within minutes, the annex was under fire again. The two security officers were killed by mortar fire, the senior U.S. intelligence official said, adding that attack lasted 11 minutes.
The emphasis on security at the CIA annex was underscored the day after the attack. With all U.S. personnel evacuated, the CIA appears to have dispatched local Libyan agents to the annex to destroy any sensitive documents and equipment there, even as the consulate compound remained unguarded and exposed to looters and curiosity seekers for weeks, officials said. Documents, including the ambassador’s journal, were taken from the consulate site, and the site proved of little value when Federal Bureau of Investigation agents finally arrived weeks later to investigate.
U.S. officials said they prioritized securing the annex because many more people worked there and they were doing sensitive work, while the consulate, by design, had no classified documents. The American contractor said the top priority was destroying sensitive documents.
In the aftermath of the assault, questions have been raised within the administration and on Capitol Hill about Mr. Petraeus’s role in responding to the attack. On Oct. 10, lawmakers grilled senior State Department officials about the attack. At one point, lawmakers and officials alluded for the first time to the existence of the CIA facility. That set off alarms at the agency and at the State Department because that information was classified.
Some senior administration officials say they were surprised Mr. Petraeus went to that night’s private Washington screening of the movie “Argo,” about a covert CIA operation in 1979 in Tehran.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Mr. Petraeus has been “fully engaged from the start,” citing a particular focus on the rescue mission, and that he received daily updates and personally reviewed intelligence reports after the attack. Another senior official said he was in constant communication with his team even when attending other events on Oct. 10.
In ensuing weeks, tensions over the matter spread to the FBI and Capitol Hill. The FBI didn’t initially get to review surveillance footage taken at the compound because officials say it was being analyzed by the CIA. The CIA, in turn, wasn’t able to immediately get copies of FBI witness interviews, delaying the agency’s analysis of what happened outside the consulate and at the annex.
A senior congressional investigator said the secrecy has made it harder to figure out what errors were made, because classification restrictions have allowed the CIA to avoid public and congressional scrutiny for its conduct. Information about the CIA’s role has largely been limited to congressional intelligence committees, which are reviewing the attacks but have not launched investigations into them.
The CIA abandoned the annex after it had been scrubbed clean of any sensitive materials, according to U.S. and Libyan officials.
The significance of the annex was a well-kept secret in Benghazi. A neighbor said that he never saw Libyan security guards at the annex compound and that the street never had any extra police presence or security cordon. “If the CIA was living there, we never knew it,” the neighbor said.
In early October, the owners of what had been the annex property moved back inside. Recently, a woman and her two children could be seen driving in and out of the front gate. A gardener said they are the wife and children of the Libyan property owner.
The woman declined to comment, then slammed the security gate shut behind her.