Personnel working at the CIA annex in Benghazi were well aware that the 9/11 anniversary last year could be a flashpoint, according to recent testimony, and a notice was even posted on a bulletin board at the annex warning of potentially increased hostilities against western targets during that period.
The new details emerged during recent closed-door briefings by CIA personnel including former contractors, according to those familiar with the testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
The witnesses also voiced concern about Ambassador Chris Stevens’ visit to Benghazi right before the 9/11 anniversary; Stevens was killed in the attack.
Given an understanding between the local CIA personnel and the nearby State Department operation that they would come to each other’s aid, the CIA on the ground in Benghazi was aware of Stevens’ arrival in Benghazi on Sept. 10, according to the witnesses. But they told lawmakers they were puzzled as to why Stevens was there during a period of heightened threat without significant additional security.
The new testimony appears to challenge the findings of the Accountability Review Board -- known as the State Department ARB -- which explicitly stated that the Benghazi consulate and the State Department “were well aware of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but at no time were there ever any specific, credible threats against the mission in Benghazi related to the September 11 anniversary."
Witnesses also testified that as early as August 2011, 13 months before the Benghazi terrorist attack, it was understood by CIA personnel at the annex that military assets were moving out of the region, and the CIA operation was potentially left exposed in the event of a terrorist strike.
Fox News is told the directive reflected the fact that NATO operations were winding down, and as a result, fewer military assets were in the region. It was described as a hard copy document. The CIA declined to comment. As a matter of policy, the agency does not discuss internal communications.
Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland – who is leading the House subcommittee investigation on Benghazi – also confirmed to Fox News that the committee is pushing the CIA to explain why personnel were asked to sign a second non-disclosure agreement at the May 2013 ceremony honoring the two former CIA contractors and Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were killed by mortar fire defending the CIA annex. The agreements, one of which CIA personnel had already signed before the May event, have raised concern among some lawmakers that CIA personnel were being pressured not to talk about Benghazi.
Westmoreland said the witnesses testified they did not feel “threatened” but the circumstances did not feel right. “I think the timing speaks for itself,” Westmoreland said. “We are going to run everything we got to the ground.”
While not addressing the timing – the memorial service was the first time all the Benghazi personnel were together since the attack -- or the need for a second NDA, a CIA spokesman said signing an NDA is standard practice, the NDAs did not specifically mention Benghazi and all CIA personnel were encouraged to speak to Congress.
“CIA contractors routinely sign secrecy agreements, which are standard forms. No CIA officer has ever signed a secrecy agreement that referenced Benghazi or that prohibited them from talking to Congress,” the spokesman said. “In fact, CIA secrecy agreements specifically note an officer’s right to bring issues to the attention of Congress. Furthermore, Director Brennan extended to all Benghazi survivors an invitation to speak to Congress and indicated the Agency would support their interaction. Several have spoken to CIA’s oversight committees.”
Describing his clients only as members of an “elite security team,” lawyer Mark Zaid, who represents three of the witnesses told Fox News: “In my 20 years of handling government secrecy agreements, without a doubt, it is not standard practice to require a second NDA under these reported circumstances.”
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.