The long-awaited House committee report on the 2012 Benghazi attacks revealed a striking irony: In the end, the forces that came to evacuate State Department and CIA officers that night were not fellow Americans, but a secret unit of former military officers from the Qaddafi regime that Washington – and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – had helped overthrow.
Their intervention, according to the report, likely saved “over two dozen lives.”
“In other words, some of the very individuals the United States had helped remove from power during the Libyan revolution were the only Libyans that came to the assistance of the United States on the night of the Benghazi attacks,” the report said.
The detail was one of numerous revelations in the expansive report released Tuesday by the Republican-led committee. While Democrats and Republicans on and off the committee sparred over the group’s work and the political implications for Clinton’s presidential bid, one detail seemed indisputable: U.S. forces from outside Libya did not deploy to Benghazi that night.
Not only that, the report said, but neither the sitting Libyan government “the State Department had worked tirelessly to appease” nor the militia contracted to provide security was able to evacuate Americans under fire at the annex.
Instead, the massive convoy that came to rescue Americans the morning after the attack began was sent by a group called Libyan Military Intelligence.
The CIA did not know that unit existed, but it apparently was made up of former Qaddafi military officers who had “gone into hiding” for fear of assassination.
The report described how one unnamed CIA officer helped arrange for the evacuation, after being put in touch with the secret group by a Libyan official. The group sent a heavily armed convoy to take the American personnel to the airport, and to safety.
The report stated: “This group, ironically, had close ties to the former Qadhafi regime—the very regime the United States had helped remove from power. It was also this group, not groups previously given credit by previous investigations, that came to the rescue of the Americans in those early morning hours — likely saving dozens of lives as a result.”
Committee member Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., highlighted this detail, during a press conference Tuesday morning with other Republican members.
“At the end of the day, no military assets were ever moving toward Benghazi,” she said. “But for the bravery of a few Americans and the unexpected response of Qaddafi’s underground militia … there would have been an even greater loss of life that night.”
The report, more broadly, described a disconnect between the “bureaucratic” response at upper levels and in Washington, and the urgent response on the ground that night.
The report said despite orders from President Obama and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to deploy, the first military force did not do so until more than 13 hours after the attack started.
The report said one anti-terrorism security team known as the FAST unit sat waiting for three hours in Rota, Spain, as Marines changed “in and out of their uniforms four times,” and even debated whether they should carry personal weapons, according to one witness. All together, the report said, “it would take nearly 18 hours” for that team to move.
In the end, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans -- foreign service officer Sean Smith and former Navy Seals Ty Woods and Glen Doherty -- were killed in the attacks.
Democrats have long slammed the committee’s work as partisan, and Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon repeated that charge Tuesday.
“Far from honoring the four brave Americans who died, the Benghazi Committee has been a partisan sham since its start,” he tweeted.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner defended the department in a written statement issued shortly before the report’s formal release, while saying the “essential facts” surrounding the attacks have been known “for some time.”
“We have made great progress towards making our posts safer since 2012,” Toner said. “… Our implementation efforts include work to expand the corps of Diplomatic Security personnel, enhance interagency coordination to address threat information, expand the Marine Security Guard program, and accelerate projects to build and upgrade secure facilities.”
He said the department “cooperated extensively with the Select Committee,” providing over 50 current and former employees for interviews and over 100,000 pages of documents.