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Fox News, Benghazi and ’13 Hours’: A critical look

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

The United States has long known what happened to Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty at the CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. These security operators and former Navy SEALs died in mortar attacks launched by Libyan militants as they fought from an annex rooftop to protect the facility and about two dozen U.S. personnel on site.

What happened just following their combat deaths wasn’t quite as well known. As detailed in the new book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” Delta Force members grabbed their bodies. The book describes how security operator John “Tig” Tiegen dealt with the goings-on: “Tig watched as they climbed the ladder to the roof and lifted [Tyrone Woods’s] body onto the parapet. Tig knew what would happen next, so he turned away to avoid seeing it. Afterward, Tig couldn’t shake the sickening sound of Rone’s body hitting the marble patio at the bottom of a fifteen-foot fall.”

The body of Glen Doherty sustained a similar free-fall: “After Rone [nickname for Tyrone Woods], the D-boys took the same approach with Glen. His body hit a bush on the way down, slicing open his abdomen. Disgusted and angry, Tig told himself that both men deserved better.”

Those falls — and their impact on the security operators — provided one of the many dramatic moments in the book and in an hourlong special with anchor Bret Baier that debuted on Fox News on Sept. 5, a broadcast that was based on “13 Hours.” In a comment to Baier, security operator Mark “Oz” Geist said, “The D-boys picked the bodies up and dumped them over the side of the roof. Maybe that’s not the right description but they got ’em off the roof the most expedient manner.” As he explained the situation, Tig buried his head in his hands.

A great number of journalists and government instrumentalities have tilted at Benghazi. Congressional committees have done exhaustive research and investigations, a frenzy that continues with the first public hearing tomorrow of the House select committee on Benghazi; David Kirkpatrick did a huge and controversial investigative project in the New York Times at the end of last year; Sharyl Attkisson turned into her own Benghazi channel before leaving the network; Fox News dedicated 1,098 evening segments to Benghazi over 20 months following the attacks; and on and on.

All of those efforts look fragmentary when placed side-by-side with “13 Hours,” a 300-page chronology written by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff and the five surviving members of the annex security contract team. They are Tiegen, Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and two others who are pseudonymous in the book.

“13 Hours” actually understates the book’s approach; a better title might have been “780 Minutes,” or “46,800 Seconds,” such is the detail through which Zuckoff and his co-authors cycle on every page. Yes, there is biographical information on the contractors plus explanations of Benghazi history and other background information. But the book chronicles every little decision that went into this much-discussed series of battles. At times the detail is a bit too much, as when it gets into the movements of the various security contractors from building to building at the U.S. diplomatic compound following the attack. Yet there are payoffs to such a micro-narrative, as when Zuckoff tells of a building mix-up in the midst of the battle:

All the Americans were at the villa except Tig, who mistakenly believed that his colleagues were still destroying classified information at the [Tactical Operations Center, TOC]. They left without alerting him, so he spent about five minutes alone at the carport, providing solo security for an empty building.
“Where are you?” the Team Leader called to Tig over the radio.
“I’m over by the TOC,” Tig answered.
“We’re not over there anymore, man.”
“Oh. F—.”

Three on-the-record sources — indeed, authors — combined with painstaking detail and consistency with previous accounts of the attacks have endowed “13 Hours” with significant credibility in the Benghazi look-back oeuvre. And that credibility has landed on the open sore of Benghazi reporting known as “stand down.”

On Oct. 26, 2012, Fox News came out with a story saying that security operators at the CIA annex were twice told to “stand down” after distress calls came streaming in from the diplomatic compound, where U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and others were staying. Following publication of the Fox News allegations, the CIA issued a rare public denial:

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.

And boy, did the CIA’s denial ever gain traction in officialdom. A report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found, “The Committee explored claims that there was a ‘stand down’ order given to the security team at the Annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound, the Committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.” A House Intelligence Committee report found that there was no “stand down” order. The State Department’s Accountability Review Board found that “The departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors.”

“13 Hours” surrounds the record with doubt. The security operators express no equivocation that they were instructed by the CIA base chief to “stand down” more than once in the 20 to 30 minutes during which they awaited the command to proceed in defense of the diplomatic compound, located less than a mile away from the annex. An appeal from the diplomatic post got them moving: “If you guys do not get here, we’re going to die!” came the call. With that, the security operators say they bolted without the clearance of the CIA base chief, known only as “Bob” in “13 Hours.”

The security operators’ insistence that they were delayed during a crucial moment in the hostilities — both Stevens and State Department official Sean Smith perished at the diplomatic installation — has helped to rehabilitate Fox News’s much-battered reporting on the immediate aftermath of the attack. As Baier noted in a preview of his special, “For all this talk about ‘stand down,’ these guys say, definitively, it happened. They were ready to go to respond to these calls for help from the diplomatic facility. They were at the CIA annex. They were ready to go and almost 30 minutes later, they finally broke ranks and went on their own.”

There is, however, a thread of consistency between official accounts and “13 Hours”: Intelligence officials have conceded that “Bob” was seeking support from local militia members before sending the security operators into mayhem. So “Bob” wasn’t instructing them to “stand down” from providing help to under-attack Americans; he was just trying to piece together a bona fide military response. When asked by the Erik Wemple Blog to square the Fox News version of events with officialdom’s version of events, we received quite a bit of text from a senior U.S. intelligence official:

Put yourself in the Chief of Base’s shoes. What happens if you blindly send out a rescue operation — with no backup or support — into a situation where you don’t know how many militants and weapons your team will encounter? Could your rescuers all be ambushed and killed? Might they have to be rescued themselves? What happens if you then stretch your limited security resources too thin—will the Annex get overrun as well? These are factors the Chief of Base had to consider that night. The Chief of Base properly sought to obtain additional information, support and weaponry before sending his men into this situation. No one questions the bravery of the security personnel and their willingness to deploy into the fray. At the same time, it is unfair to second-guess the decisions of an officer responsible for not only organizing a rescue, but also ensuring more lives aren’t lost during the course of that terrible evening.
If the security officers had left immediately, without the Chief of Base trying to gather backup, and didn’t survive, the conversation today would be different. People would be asking why didn’t the Chief of Base secure backup.
It’s interesting how the lore and narrative of the ‘stand down’ order has evolved over time. Both the House and Senate intelligence committee reviews of Benghazi have determined that there was no ‘stand down’ order preventing officers on the ground from rendering aid. These reviews reaffirm the Chief of Base’s decision to try and obtain additional support for the rescue mission was the right call.
The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation at the Temporary Mission quickly and effectively. The security officers in particular were genuine heroes. Before these officers left to help their colleagues, a prudent, fast attempt was made to rally local support for the rescue effort and secure heavier weapons. When it became clear that this additional support could not be rapidly obtained, the team moved out and put their lives on the line to save their comrades. 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. There was no second guessing those decisions being made on the ground, by people at every US organization that could play a role in assisting those in danger. There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.

“13 Hours” adds a dynamite element of context to the efforts of “Bob” to orchestrate local backup for embattled Americans. It speaks of a previous incident in which Woods and another security operator encountered a checkpoint while riding back from the airport with a “truckload of supplies.” The checkpoint was manned by what the book calls “radical Islamist militia.” When Woods sought backup from the CIA annex, “Bob” responded by pledging to “alert the 17 February Martyrs Brigade and have the ostensibly friendly militia serve as a Quick Reaction Force.” In other words, calling in friendly militiamen was an MO of sorts for “Bob.”

In the hot, early days of the Benghazi controversy, various Fox News types attempted to suggest that the Obama administration had perhaps deliberately withheld support for the besieged Americans in Benghazi. Such viewpoints may have found succor in that Oct. 26, 2012, Fox News story, which alleges that it was the CIA “chain of command” that issued the orders. The key paragraph:

Fox News has learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that 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 — who also told the 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.

Bold text inserted to highlight a term that could easily be interpreted to mean that Washington was involved in when and how to deploy the likes of “Oz” and “Tanto” and “Tig” in battle. A senior U.S. intelligence official tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “It was a local decision.”

In a chat with this blog, Zuckoff said, “I have no reporting that contradicts that.” Nor does “13 Hours” attribute the delay to anyone outside of Benghazi.

That original Fox News story on Benghazi alleged more than just a “stand-down” situation. It also reported that the CIA annex had “captured three Libyan attackers and was forced to hand them over to the Libyans. U.S. officials do not know what happened to those three attackers and whether they were released by the Libyan forces.” A subsequent Fox News story reported that “other prisoners from additional countries in Africa and the Middle East were brought” to the CIA annex in Benghazi. Intelligence officials denied that claim. For all its granularity, “13 Hours” doesn’t mention detainees at the Annex. “The guys told me nothing about taking detainees,” says Zuckoff.

Whatever the ins and outs of Fox News’s work on Benghazi, it appealed on some level to the security operators, who gave their opening interview to Baier and the network. When asked why they chose Fox News, Brian McLendon, vice president and associate publisher for Grand Central Publishing and Twelve, told the Erik Wemple Blog, “Bret Baier’s reporting on this story from the beginning has been the most human. He has focused on the human element of this and just — honestly, their vision for [the special] matched with what the book was.”

Zuckoff and the security operators have expressed a desire to stay out of Benghazi politics and stick with on-the-ground facts. They succeed, both in the book and on the Fox News special. That said, the book’s revelations leave little doubt as to where the actual Benghazi scandal lies: In the utter inability of Washington to muster even the slightest figment of a defense force in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and despite numerous warnings about instability and hostility in the region. Months ago, ABC News’s Diane Sawyer chose just this aspect of Benghazi to put before Hillary Rodham Clinton in an extended interview segment. Readers of “13 Hours” will want to re-watch that tete-a-tete.

Benghazi has furnished a storm of outrages over two years, some of them real and some phony. “13 Hours” may only add to the list of real ones, as it details how our country relies on contract labor — yes, true heroes — to man the front lines in overseas hotspots, how our leaders left a diplomatic compound exposed and how a pair of fallen warriors were dropped off a roof.