Despite numerous congressional investigations into the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, we still don’t know the whole story.
The attack took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and wounded a number of others. It also caused a political firestorm when the White House blamed the attack on an anti-Islam video made in the United States, which was later proven not to be the case.
In a midterm election year, there is money to be made (and controversy to stir up) from a new book written by those who were on the ground, tasked with defending the compound against America’s enemies – and who want to get their side of things out.
13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi is written by a journalism professor at Boston University, Mitchell Zuckoff, along with the Annex Security Team – the six CIA contract operators who responded to the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks. The operators’ palpable frustration about what happened once the compound was under attack by terrorists just about pops off the pages of the book.
The operators claim vigorously in 13 Hours that they were told by the CIA chief in charge to “wait,” “stand down” and “hold up” essentially while people figured out what to do and tried to coordinate with the local militia and others once the attack had occurred. This, of course, has all come out before and is not new to this telling.
But here is the new immediacy: Right after Ambassador Stevens wrote a line in his diary that night referencing the "never ending security threats" in the area, the consulate was suddenly “overrun” by several dozen men “chanting in Arabic and firing AK-47s into the air,” the book recounts.
They “swarmed through the pedestrian entrance at the compound’s main gate. Eventually their numbers swelled to more than sixty… A few hid their faces with scarves, but most didn’t…. One thing was certain: They displayed a common desire to terrorize Americans at the Special Mission Compound. Or worse.”
The Islamic terrorists, likely members of an al-Qaeda branch, set fire to the compound and began to invade the ambassador’s residential villa by blowing open the wooden front doors with what’s presumed to be a rocket-propelled grenade.
Moving further in, the marauders doused the interior with diesel fuel and set it on fire – trapping the three men who were hiding in the darkness of the interior’s safe haven: agent in charge Scott Wickland, Ambassador Stevens and communications expert Sean Smith of the State Department.
Lethal black smoke quickly enveloped the interior and though Wickland tried to lead Stevens and Smith to safety and fresh air, according to the book, he eventually lost the two men in the smoke and chaos. Despite numerous attempts to find them, he ultimately made his way out, barely conscious and suffering from smoke inhalation. He managed to radio fellow agents for help.
“After making the call, Wickland collapsed on the rooftop,” the book says.
With the compound under attack, no coordinated effort to help or save the Americans seemed to be under way – or if it was, it was not communicated to those hired to protect it, the book suggests. So the members of the Annex’s security team decided to take matters into their own hands. “The operators’ only option was to act,” the book says.
They zoomed off to the burning and compromised residence, finally locating the body of Sean Smith – and took heavy fire on their way out without having located Ambassador Stevens. The tale proceeds apace as the operators continued to battle against a second attack by the terrorists at Benghazi as the awful night turned into morning and the attackers finally receded.
The book succeeds in its blow-by-blow retelling; but this account requires readers to believe and trust fully in the narrators’ point of view, since it’s impossible to know what they’re leaving out.
The writers say their book “is not intended to support or satisfy one side or the other in resolving the controversies that remain. By telling their story, the Benghazi operators hope that the battle and their actions will be understood on their own terms, outside of partisan or political interests.”
Many uncertainties remain, of course, about what happened in Benghazi, chiefly whether the White House manipulated its messaging of the events for political reasons. What’s clear from multiple accounts, including this one, is this: Security was lacking. Coordination seemed uncertain. Communication wasn’t strong. Lives were lost.
If you believe this new account, there was also a fierce defense of American interests by those charged with that nearly impossible task two years ago.
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