Nearly two months after a deadly attack on a US consulate in Libya, a bitter row is still raging over who is to blame for the security breakdown, with the spotlight now shifting to the CIA’s role.
US President Barack Obama, the US Department of State and the Pentagon have come under fire since the Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi that killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republican supporters of Obama’s rival, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pounced on the issue in a hard-fought presidential campaign, keeping it in the spotlight.
US Senator John McCain and other Republican senators called for US Senate Armed Forces Committee hearings to address whether there was sufficient military personnel in place in Benghazi at the time of the attack.
Due to the clandestine nature of its work, the CIA was initially spared from scrutiny, but now the spy service and its director, former US Army general David Petraeus, are on the defensive.
The Wall Street Journal suggested on Friday that the CIA’s fixation with secrecy may have led to confusion over security at the compound and crossed signals with the State Department.
According to the report, the US Benghazi mission was essentially a CIA operation instead of a diplomatic post, and most staff worked for the spy agency.
The State Department believed there was a formal agreement the CIA would provide backup security in an emergency, but the intelligence service had a different view, the paper said.
The focus on the CIA reflects fresh questions about the spy service’s response as well as a turf war inside the US government bureaucracy, as officials seek to shield their departments from criticism.
Intelligence officials took the unusual step of giving reporters a timeline of events, which they said showed the CIA acted swiftly and decisively.
“The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible,” a senior intelligence official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
At the CIA compound in Benghazi, dubbed the “annex” in previous reports, news that the nearby consulate building was coming under attack first came in at 9:40pm, the senior official said.
A security team of seven agents moved out to secure the consulate, arriving at 10:30pm after coming under fire. The team evacuated the staff, but could not find the ambassador and then drove to the annex.
At the Pentagon, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent an unarmed surveillance drone over the area, which arrived within about 90 minutes. He also ordered troops from the US and special operations forces in Europe to a NATO base in Sigonella, Italy, for a potential rescue operation.
Yet by the time the units arrived in southern Italy, the consulate had been torched and ransacked.
“The fact of the matter is these forces were not in place until after the attacks were over,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Friday.
As heavily armed militants laid siege to the consulate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Petraeus directly to ask for help from the agency, the Journal said.
In Benghazi, the security team returned to the annex, where they faced sporadic gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. They returned fire and the attackers withdrew.