A crew of surviving security operators on the front lines of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, wasn’t happy with a Sept. 16 news conference of House Democrats complaining that key concerns about the U.S. response to the attacks have been “asked and answered.” Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Adam Schiff of California and Adam Smith of Washington, among others, raised questions about the workings and aims of the select congressional committee on Benghazi. Also in the sights of the Democratic lawmakers was 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi,” a recently published book by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff and the security team that responded to the attacks both at the U.S. Benghazi diplomatic installation and a nearby CIA annex. Their efforts saved about 30 lives. 

One of the key revelations of “13 Hours” was that three security operators — Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and John “Tig” Tiegen — provided on-the-record attestation to a “stand-down” order that came down in the immediate aftermath of the attacks just after 9:30 p.m. that night. That matter has been a point of considerable controversy. In the news conference, Schiff issued some carefully considered words on the matter: “Some of these questions that have been repeatedly asked and answered were asked again in the wake of a campaign to promote a new book on the Benghazi attacks,” said Schiff. “Contrary to claims made in connection with the book, however, we found that our personnel acted properly in trying to secure local assistance and avoid ambush and we did not find evidence that a different course of action would have saved, rather than jeopardize, more lives. Both the House and Senate intelligence committees interviewed these three contractors, their supervisor and others on the ground and concluded that there was no improper stand-down order.”

Hear that? Fox News host Sean Hannity invited the representatives to debate the security contractors on the matter of the “stand-down” order. The “only lawmaker man enough to accept” the invitation, proclaimed Hannity in his trademark bravado, was Smith.

What followed was pretty good Benghazi-oriented cable TV. Hannity asked Paronto if there was a stand-down order; he responded that indeed there was. Hannity then put the matter before Smith, who said that in the Sept. 16 news conference he was referencing another stand-down controversy, the one relating to the dispatching of personnel from Tripoli to Benghazi, not the one that unfolded in Benghazi just after the attack: “Well, first of all, the reference that I made to was to the folks in Tripoli. I was making no reference whatsoever to the annex in Benghazi,” said Smith (the videotape of the news conference appears to support this claim).

The discussion progressed to the point that the security contractors ripped Smith for not speaking out against his colleague Schiff’s comments. Here’s how Paronto put it: “Then the congressman should have stood up and said, you know what, that was incorrect, that shouldn’t have been said. And it didn’t happen. Here we are on TV talking to you, saying this is wrong, it’s wrong. You shouldn’t have said it. All right, the book is correct. Everything in the book is right. There’s nothing wrong with it. And also move forward, hey, don’t call us liars anymore.”

Cornered, Smith then put together this defense: “I never, I never called you liars. Now, I’m not willing to say that everything in your book is the absolute truth. I mean, you are definitely heroes. There’s no question. But there’s a whole lot of people who had a whole bunch of different opinions about what happened there.”

Bold text added to highlight the most unconvincing “heroes” compliment ever uttered on cable news.