The CIA rushed security operatives to an American diplomatic compound in Libya within 25 minutes of its coming under attack and played a more central role in the effort to fend off a night-long siege than has been acknowledged publicly, 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 American personnel to safety, U.S. officials said.
The account provided by senior U.S. intelligence officials offers the most detailed chronology yet of the Sept. 11 assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. The attack has become a flash point in the U.S. presidential campaign.
The decision to give 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 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.
“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,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said in a prepared statement that summarized the chronology of the attack and was made available to news organizations.
The information does not address the main source of political controversy surrounding the siege: the shifting assessments offered by Obama administration officials over whether the assault was a protest that turned violent or a planned terrorist attack.
But officials reiterated that the initial intelligence was fragmentary and often contradictory. They said talking points for members of Congress and senior administration officials did not discuss possible links between the attackers and al-Qaeda because the information was classified.
“It wasn’t until after the points were used in public that people reconciled contradictory information and assessed there probably wasn’t a protest around the time of the attack,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The briefing and material provided Thursday focused on the hour-by-hour developments in Benghazi. Among the 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.