By Mitchell Zuckoff Twelve.
352 pp. $28
A federal indictment issued Oct. 14 in the District of Columbia charged Ahmed Abu Khattala, whose alias it lists as “Sheik,” with 18 counts of conspiracy, murder and destruction of U.S. property in Benghazi, Libya. “On or before Sept. 11, 2012,” the indictment reads, Khattala “informed others that there was an American facility in Benghazi posing as a diplomatic post, that he believed the facility was actually being used to collect intelligence, that he viewed U.S. intelligence actions in Benghazi as illegal, and that he was therefore going to do something about this facility.”
Captured by U.S. Special Operations forces in a Benghazi raid last summer, Khattala is a Libyan who heads the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia, an armed group that the State Department has designated a terror organization. The indictment says he “did unlawfully, wilfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation and malice aforethought, commit the murder” of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department communications specialist Sean Smith, and CIA contract security operators Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
So much for any lingering suggestion that the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video circulating that day on the Internet. There are few other remaining questions about the Benghazi attack, although a number of Republicans continue to charge the Obama administration with a cover-up, and a special congressional committee is still investigating.
The State Department has acknowledged lapses in security — although it has not copped to the level of responsibility many critics think it deserves. The administration was clearly guilty of slow-rolling the release of internal e-mails that indicated an unseemly level of political concern over how the attack would be explained. A government-appointed review board and House and Senate reports have all rejected charges that U.S. military forces stationed around the Mediterranean could have reached Benghazi in time to save American lives, but were mysteriously told to “stand down” by someone in Washington.
Like other recent bestsellers of the Special Operations genre — “Lone Survivor,” about a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan, or “No Easy Day,” about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — “13 Hours” is an action story that does not dwell on matters of U.S. foreign or security policy, or even the specific cauldron of Libya. It provides little that is new for those still stoking the Benghazi controversy and no real answers to whatever mystery may remain.
Written by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff from the accounts of five CIA security contractors, or operators, as they call themselves, it is a minute-by-minute account of what they saw, thought and did on the night of Sept. 11-12 in Benghazi. Some of those minutes are nerve-wracking or tragic, as when the operators, expecting to be fired upon by militant attackers, repeatedly enter the burning diplomatic villa, holding their breath against toxic smoke, to pull out Smith’s dead body and search in vain for Stevens. Or later, as they turn away in horror when the bodies of two of their own, killed by mortar fire atop a parapet at the CIA annex, are unceremoniously thrown two stories to the ground by rescuers to be loaded into an escape convoy.
Other minutes, however, are excruciatingly tedious. It takes more than 20 pages for the operators to travel on foot to the diplomatic compound from the end of an access road to the entry gate. They cover for each other, climb walls and dirt mounds, and wonder about local men standing around watching them. Nothing happens.
The five operators who provided the account — John “Tig” Tiegen, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, Mark “Oz” Geist, and two others who are known by the pseudonyms Dave “D.B” Benton and Jack Silva — are basically brave, macho guys doing a job. They express no interest in knowing or understanding the country and culture that surround them, or in questioning the presence in Benghazi of the secret CIA facility they were sent to guard as contractors for the agency’s Global Response Staff.
Woods, one of the contract security officers killed, was the sixth member of their Benghazi team. Doherty was a GRS contractor at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, flown to Benghazi in the middle of the night on a rescue mission. Both were killed by a mortar barrage that hit the CIA annex, hours after the diplomatic compound was attacked.
All former members of the U.S. military, most of the operators knew one another from previous contractor assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkans. They speak in the jargon of their profession — they are “dudes” and “bros” who “jock up” with weapons, extra ammunition and other tools of the trade when things start hitting the fan.
In their telling, Sept. 11 proceeded like any other day in Benghazi. They sat around drinking coffee, thought of their families, read, played video games and worked out at a dusty, makeshift gym inside the annex. They accompanied CIA officers on visits to Libyan contacts and planned security to assist State Department guards on a trip Stevens would be making outside the diplomatic compound on Sept. 12. As they had many times before, they expressed doubts about the compound’s security and the reliability of its local militia guards. They pondered the intentions of Libyan men in the streets whose language they did not speak and who looked uniformly threatening to the contractors. They had little good to say about their CIA bosses: the agent assigned as team leader of their security unit or the top intelligence officer at the secret annex.
The attack started at the compound around 9:40 p.m., when up to 20 armed attackers easily crashed through the main gate as local guards melted away. Within minutes of receiving the alarm, the operators at the CIA annex, about a mile away, jocked up and piled into two vehicles, ready to move.
Outside the cars, the unnamed team leader and the CIA chief, known only as “Bob,” talked together and into a cellphone, apparently trying to arrange for the local guards, called the 17 February militia, to mount a rescue.
“Tig called out, ‘Hey, we gotta go now! We’re losing the initiative!’
“ ‘No, stand down, you need to wait,’ Bob the base chief yelled back.
“ ‘We need to come up with a plan,’ the Team Leader repeated.”
Later the operators speculated that if they had left immediately, without losing 15 to 20 minutes haggling inside the annex before their rescue mission was launched, they could have saved the lives of Stevens and Smith. It is impossible to know. When they finally reached the compound, after the lengthy trek up the access road on foot, the attackers were gone and the compound villa, where the two diplomats had sought refuge in a safe room, was a smoking wreck. They found Smith, dead from smoke inhalation, but they left again for the annex, without finding Stevens, when the attackers returned. Stevens’s body was later taken by friendly Libyans to a local hospital.
They drove back to the CIA facility under fire. Shortly after their arrival, they fended off two brief, unsuccessful militant assaults on the annex. They spent the tense night staring from the roof through night-vision goggles, while the two dozen or so CIA and diplomatic personnel they were guarding huddled in buildings below. Before dawn, just after the arrival of the team that had flown from Tripoli, the militants struck again with five mortar rounds, killing Woods and Doherty and wounding several others.
Shortly thereafter, a quarter-mile-long Libyan militia convoy arrived, filled with “hard-looking soldiers,” armed to the teeth. Like so many things in that country, their identities were a mystery to the contractors, as was the timing of what turned out to be a rescue force. “Neither Tanto nor any of the other operators knew which militia [the rescuers] belonged to, or whether they were an official Libyan government force.”