Media critic


Second in a sprawling series on Fox News’s Oct. 26 Benghazi story.

Last Friday afternoon, the Central Intelligence Agency issued a statement in response to a report by Fox News that CIA “operators” were told to “stand down” rather than jump into action in defense of a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11. Four U.S. personnel, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, died that night. The CIA statement read:

We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate. In fact, it is important to remember how many lives were saved by courageous Americans who put their own safety at risk that night — and that some of those selfless Americans gave their lives in the effort to rescue their comrades.

Those words didn’t put the Fox report to bed, thanks in part to The Post’s David Ignatius, who said earlier this week that the reporting demands a fuller government response. Presto: On Thursday, national security reporters around the Beltway were feasting on a timeline of Benghazi events provided by a senior U.S. intelligence official. The Erik Wemple Blog also got the timeline.

How does this timeline cast the high-profile Fox story of last Friday? Let’s have a look.

Issue No. 1: “Stand down”

Fox reported: The CIA chain of command told “CIA operators twice to ‘stand down’ rather than help the ambassador’s team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.” The “ambassador’s team” was stationed about a mile from the “CIA operators,” who were at an annex.

The timeline reports:

--Around 9:40pm (local) the first call comes in to the Annex that the Mission is coming under attack.

--Fewer than 25 minutes later, a security team left the Annex for the Mission.

--Over the next 25 minutes, team members approach the compound, attempt to secure heavy weapons, and make their way onto the compound itself in the face of enemy fire.

Upshot: Fox reported that security contractor Tyrone Woods and others “ignored” the alleged orders to “stand down” and rushed from the annex to the compound (mission). Woods would later die trying to defend against the attackers.

Here’s a key portion of the timeline: “There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.” Could the alleged “stand down” orders have been mere directives to wait until proper security preparations had been completed? Maybe.

In a fresh piece on this situation, Ignatius addresses whatever tension may have arisen over the time lapse between the call to the annex and the departure of the security team:

The senior intelligence official said that he doesn’t know whether Woods or any of the other team members agitated to go sooner but added that he wouldn’t be surprised. “I want them to have a sense of urgency,” he said.

Issue No. 2: Military Support

Fox reported:

An urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command.

However, the Fox report acknowledges that security reinforcements from Tripoli arrived in Benghazi to help out. That said, it alleges that more could have been done:

The fighting at the CIA annex went on for more than four hours — enough time for any planes based in Sigonella Air base, just 480 miles away, to arrive. Fox News has also learned that two separate Tier One Special operations forces were told to wait, among them Delta Force operators.

The timeline reports:

At around 1 a.m., or 3 1/2 hours after the first call, “a team of additional security personnel lands at the Benghazi airport, negotiates for transport into town, and upon learning the Ambassador was missing and that the situation at the Annex had calmed, focused on locating the Ambassador, and trying to secure information on the security situation at the hospital.” That team, explains the timeline, later went to the annex to assist in the evacuation; it arrived there “just before the mortar rounds begin to hit the Annex. The two security officers were killed when they took direct mortar fire as they engaged the enemy. That attack lasted only 11 minutes then also dissipated.”

The timeline addresses the question of military assistance: “The US military’s support was essential and much appreciated – it provided [drone support], tactical support sent to the scene from Tripoli, and MEDEVAC.”

Two story lines

This Benghazi story is a beast. It features, all at once, a painstaking level of detail, confusion and ambiguity. There’s multiple-agency mayhem, with the State Department, the CIA, branches of the armed forces, security contractors and so on. There’s a U.S. diplomatic presence with a mission and an annex, across which the hostilities are extended. On the other side are Libyan elements that are friendly to the United States and Libyan elements that, quite clearly, are not.

So it’s easy to get lost in the details of who did what when. To step back from the nitty-gritty, though, is to see two contrasting pictures. The Fox News report paints the CIA as a cautious and incompetent organization that hesitated and withdrew when U.S. citizens and assets were under fire. Officialdom depicts the effort as an all-out scramble to deliver as much help as quickly as possible.

As reported in this series yesterday, the mainstream media have largely declined to follow Fox’s reporting, leaving it on something of a limb. A reckoning is coming. Stay tuned to this series.