The Pentagon is pushing back on claims that a Special Operations unit could have saved lives if sent to Benghazi during the attack there last fall.
Once the assault on the U.S. compound began sometime after 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, American Embassy officials in Tripoli began organizing a response effort to protect personnel. A four-member "quick reaction force," along with two members of a Department of Defense special mission unit, left for Benghazi at about 12:30 a.m., according to a Pentagon spokesman. (They arrived roughly one hour later.)
But it was another team, this one composed of four Army Green Berets, that has become the focus of controversy in recent days. This team was not made up of security personnel, but was in Tripoli on a training mission. The Green Berets had been assisting with evacuation efforts in Tripoli on the night of the attacks, helping move personnel to a secure annex in case there were attacks in the Libyan capital.
On Wednesday, Gregory Hicks, then the deputy chief of mission in Libya, testified before the House Oversight Committee that he requested that the four Green Berets fly to Benghazi to provide further protection for U.S. personnel there.
"People in Benghazi had been fighting all night," said Hicks. "They were tired, exhausted. We wanted to make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal."
The unit's team leader wanted to go to Benghazi, testified Hicks. The Green Berets were preparing to board a C-130 transport plane bound for Benghazi sometime between 6 and 6:30 a.m.
When the team leader, identified by Hicks as Lt. Col. Gibson, called Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) to inform them that personnel in Tripoli were secure and that his unit intended to go to Benghazi, he was ordered to remain in Tripoli.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little confirmed this account to reporters on Wednesday. The decision was made because it was believed "there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi."
In an interview with RealClearDefense, a Pentagon spokesman elaborated on the rationale behind the order to remain in place.
Immediately following the second attack in Benghazi at approximately 5:15 a.m., U.S. personnel quickly made their way to the airport having realized their original position was vulnerable. According to DOD spokesman Maj. Robert Firman, all remaining U.S. personnel from the Benghazi compound were at the city's airport before the C-130 flight was to leave Tripoli sometime around 6 a.m. At that time, it was the assessment of military officials within AFRICOM (the larger command structure) that the airport was secure. According to Firman, four U.S. security personnel, Libyan military and police, as well as Libyan militias who had assisted the evacuation were present at the airport.
Because all remaining U.S. personnel were therefore assessed to be secure and there was no longer a rescue operation underway at the facility in Benghazi, SOCAFRICA believed the four Army Green Berets would be of greater use supporting arriving evacuation flights in Tripoli. As Firman told RealClearDefense, had the Green Berets gone to Benghazi, they would not have been in Tripoli to receive the first evacuation flight that arrived at 7:40 a.m. with wounded from Benghazi.
While some have speculated that the Green Berets were held back in Tripoli due to security threats there, the Pentagon rejected that claim in it comments to RealClearDefense. Embassy security was in place with American personnel at the Tripoli annex.
When asked why the Pentagon had not discussed these details before, Firman said officials there were unaware of the order given to the Green Berets until recent news reports by CBS News and FOX News, among others.