If former CIA Director David Petraeus and his ex-deputy Michael Morell are recalled to testify on Benghazi, they can expect hard questions about the mortar attack on the CIA annex which killed two former Navy SEALs.
Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, is weighing whether to recall one or both of those officials over their Benghazi congressional testimony.
Rogers said the evidence suggests a highly skilled team carried out the mortar strike. Fox News has confirmed five rounds were fired in under a minute, with three hitting the annex roof -- a target roughly the size of two convenience stores.
"This was exceptionally good shooting. It was clearly accurate. They adjusted their fire, which is a term a mortar crew might use, so they went a little long and a little short and they fired for effect," Rogers said. "When you fire for effect and you have three rounds hit exactly where they were intended that ended up taking the lives of our American heroes there, that tells me that they knew exactly what they were doing. So that was either significantly preplanned, or it was a mortar crew that was exceptionally good."
In addition to Rogers’ assessment, military experts say the mortar strike on the CIA base was evidence of a planned terror attack, and because it forced the evacuation of the annex, it must have been known immediately in Washington. But in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2013,Morell said “the nature of the attacks suggested they did not involve significant pre-planning."
Mortar crews have specialized training to prepare rounds for launch which includes calculations for distance, direction and altitude. Mortars are called “indirect fire” because in most cases, especially urban environments like Benghazi, the crew can't see the target.
A U.S. official familiar with the investigation said an early lead on the mortar site, a field a half -mile southeast of the annex, did not pan out in part because a forensic review showed the mortars were fired from a greater distance.
Given the accuracy, and the fact the rounds were fired in darkness, five military officers, including retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, concluded the terrorists pre-set the location.
"For this mortar crew to put three rounds of the first five -- right on target -- means to me that even in the day of GPS … the site for the mortar had to be pre-selected,"Peters explained."That would be a good score for a U.S. infantry, well-trained mortar crew."
Retired Army Gen. Bob Scales, who has written extensively on artillery fire, concurred. "This took an enormous amount of planning, an enormous amount of training. It required preparation at a firing point, not only the mortar but also the ammunition, and something like this can't be done overnight. This is something that probably took weeks in preparation in order to pull it off."
Separately, Morell is accused by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee of misleading lawmakers over the White House's role in the so-called Benghazi talking points by stating the text was provided to the administration for their awareness, not for their input. Emails later released by the administration showed otherwise. Morell, who excised half of the talking points text, previously told Fox News that "neither the Agency, the analysts, nor I cooked the books in any way."
When pressed on the sophistication of the mortar attack, two sources familiar with Petraeus' statements to Congress said he also seemed to downplay the necessary planning and skill, stating the mortars could have been fired from the back of a truck with the same accuracy.
None of the five military officers contacted by Fox News said the truck explanation was plausible.
"A truck would not permit you that stable platform necessary to make that fine adjustment from Point A to Point B to put the rounds down," Tony Shaffer, senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research, said. "Because every time you fire, the truck shakes. That's not adequate for any type of direct fire.”
Others take a more skeptical view. "It just sounds to me like General Petraeus was trying to do a favor for the administration. I just can't see any way around it because he's an infantry man, he knows you can't do it," Peters said.
In separate, closed testimony before the House Armed Service Committee in June 2013, Gen. Carter Ham, then head of the Africa Command with jurisdiction over Libya, was asked by Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, whether firing off a truck bed was feasible.
Conaway: "Was that a pick up team or how did they do that?"
Ham: "In my judgment, sir, that could only be performed by a well-trained team with an observer in a place that could see the impact of the rounds and relay the adjustment to the guns, to the mortars to make the adjustment."
Conaway: "So this wouldn't have been some guys found a mortar tube in the back of a pickup and said, ‘hey, let's go throw them at these guys’?"
Ham: "I do not believe that to be the case."
A former SEAL platoon commander said it is "inconceivable that an untrained individual or group could successfully hit a target of that size in an urban environment without significant training.It is likely [the attackers] had a sense of the location that would be used."
The SEAL commander also said an urban environment presented extraordinary challenges, especially at night. "Think about it, you have limited angles in an urban environment.You can't just go shooting a barrage of mortars into a neighborhood."
While the CIA annex was heavily fortified, its security cameras intact and a drone overhead throughout the attack, there is apparently no video of the mortar strike itself.
Fox News asked Petraeus to further explain his assessment of the mortar attack, but there was no immediate response. Morell was asked, via email, to further explain his letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and what "significant pre-planning" meant in this context.
Fox News asked Morell to reconcile his letter with evidence that five mortars were fired in quick succession, with three striking the annex roof, suggesting the rounds were pre-set by a team with formal training.Fox News also asked why he struck the following line from the talking points: "We cannot rule out that individuals had previously surveilled the US facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks."
Morell referred the questions to the CIA public affairs office.
The father of former SEAL Ty Woods, who was killed along with Glen Doherty while defending the annex on the rooftop, said the first time he heard about the mortar strike was not from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama, but from an eyewitness who told him, “your son’s sacrifice saved my life.”
"If it had been a larger mortar, it might not have killed Ty because it would have gone through the roof, but there would have been a lot of people inside the building that might have died," Woods said.
In the Republican addendum to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, six members, including Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., were highly critical of the State Department for "absurdly equating" the attacks at the consulate and the CIA annex.
“There is a tremendous difference between a fortified facility that suffers a fatal blow from a mortar attack and a porous compound that yields to a basic ground assault.Yet, in an attempt to absolve itself of responsibility, State absurdly equated these scenarios,” the addendum said. "State repeatedly attempted to minimize its own culpability for the lack of security precautions by pointing to the fact that the same number of people died at the CIA Annex as the Temporary Mission Facility (consulate) and, therefore, CIA should be equally criticized for its own security at the Annex.The logic is remarkable for its boldness, but neither helpful nor persuasive."