WASHINGTON — The former commander of a four-member Army special forces unit in Tripoli, Libya, denied on Wednesday that he was told to stand down during last year’s deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
In a closed-door session with the House Armed Services Committee, Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson said his commanders told him to remain in the Libyan capital of Tripoli to defend Americans in the event of additional attacks and to help survivors being evacuated from Benghazi.
“Contrary to news reports, Gibson was not ordered to ‘stand down’ by higher command authorities in response to his understandable desire to lead a group of three other special forces soldiers to Benghazi,” the Republican-led committee said in a summary of its classified briefing with military officials, including Gibson.
Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in two separate attacks several hours apart on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.
Republicans insist that the Obama administration is guilty of a cover-up of the events despite a scathing independent report that faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the diplomatic mission. They have accused the administration of misleading the American people about the cause of the terrorist incident during the heat of a presidential campaign, blaming a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video.
In nearly nine months since the attack, GOP lawmakers have repeatedly asked why the military couldn’t get aircraft or forces to Benghazi in time to thwart the second attack after the first incident that killed Stevens.
The committee summary said Gibson acknowledged that if he had left Tripoli, Americans in the Libyan capital would have been without protection.
“He also stated that in hindsight, he would not have been able to get to Benghazi in time to make a difference, and as it turned out his medic was needed to provide urgent assistance to survivors once they arrived in Tripoli,” said the summary from the Armed Services Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Gregory Hicks, a former diplomat in Tripoli at the time of the attack, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in May that the unit was told to stand down.
After the first word of the attack in Benghazi, a seven-member security team, including two military personnel, flew from Tripoli to Benghazi. Upon their arrival, they learned that Stevens was missing and the situation had calmed after the first attack, according to a Pentagon timeline released last year.
Meanwhile, a second team was preparing to leave on a Libyan C-130 cargo plane from Tripoli to Benghazi when Hicks said he learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens was dead. The Libyan military agreed to transport additional personnel as reinforcements to Benghazi on its cargo plane, but Hicks complained the special forces were told not to make the trip.
“They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it,” Hicks said. Pressed on why, he said, “I guess they just didn’t have the right authority from the right level.”
Earlier this month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress there was never a stand down order.
“They weren’t told to stand down. A ‘stand down’ means don’t do anything,” he said. “They were told that the mission they were asked to perform was not in Benghazi, but was at Tripoli airport.”
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House panel, said based on congressional testimony and the independent Accountability Review Board report, the military provided “every asset at its disposal ... and responded as appropriately as it could in a fast-moving crisis.”
“In particular, this briefing unquestionably reaffirmed that there was absolutely no military order to stand down any of our forces as has been claimed,” she said in a statement.
The House panel received testimony from retired Gen. Carter Ham, the former commander for the Africa region; Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the former commander for Special Operations Command Africa, and Gibson.
The summary said John Brennan, then counterterrorism adviser, headed a review of security measures worldwide in advance of the Sept. 11 anniversary. However, Ham told the panel that he was not consulted regarding this review.
“When questioned about this process today, Gen. Ham, the combatant commander responsible for one of the most volatile threat environments in the world, stated that neither he nor anyone working for him was consulted as part of the Brennan 9/11 planning process,” the summary said.