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Updated Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 05:49 AM

Witnesses differ with U.S. over when Libya attack began

By Nancy A. Youssef
McClatchy Newspapers

BENGHAZI, Libya — Just more than a mile from the group of villas that served as the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was another set of U.S.-leased villas — an annex where the CIA had set up shop, and from where would-be rescuers set out on the night of Sept. 11 in response to the attack at the consulate.

Despite speculation to the contrary, no Libyan or non-American diplomats stationed in Benghazi say they knew of the existence or purpose of the CIA annex.

Top Libyan security officials in Benghazi and Tripoli, as well as diplomatic representatives who worked closely with Americans here, said they had no idea about the compound, which unlike the consulate had no signs of American life outside its tall gates. There were no concrete barriers in front or barbed wire on the top of its concrete wall.

Libya's deputy interior minister, Omar al-Khadrawy, and the deputy interior minister for Benghazi, Saleh Daghman, told McClatchy Newspapers they didn't know that the CIA had kept a base there. Neither did the second in command of Benghazi's largest revolutionary brigade, the Libyan Shield. Two envoys from allied nations who met frequently with Americans said they didn't know the CIA annex existed until after the deadly Sept. 11 attack.

Ahmed Langhi, Benghazi's representative to the country's congress, the General National Council, said he didn't think that anyone in the top levels of the Libyan government knew that the CIA was housed there; neither did he.

Of the dozen people McClatchy asked in Benghazi and Tripoli, only an unarmed 31-year-old security guard who was stationed at the main gate of the consulate on Sept. 11 had heard about a possible second U.S. compound in Benghazi. And he said he didn't know the CIA had been based there.

"All I heard about was a secret building," the guard said, adding that he didn't know where it was. The guard asked not to be further identified, fearing reprisals from extremists for working with Americans.

During an Oct. 26 question-and-answer session at the University of Denver, Paula Broadwell, who's been named as the woman whose affair with CIA Director David Petraeus led to his resignation Friday, told the audience that two Libyan militiamen were being held at the CIA annex and suggested that the attackers were targeting the annex, rather than the consulate.

"Now, I don't know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually, um, had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner, and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. So that's still being vetted," she said.

But most here don't believe that. The guard, who stayed around the consulate for the duration of the assault, said he thought the subsequent attack on the CIA compound happened because the attackers had followed the Americans who were fleeing the consulate to the CIA annex.

"They came to kill Americans," he said.

Other witnesses in Benghazi, provided a chronology for the Sept. 11 attack that differs in significant ways from timelines released by U.S. officials in Washington, raising more questions about how the assault unfolded and the speed with which Americans at a nearby CIA annex responded to calls for help from the consulate.

The versions of the attack told here indicate that the last visitor who met with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died in the assault on the consulate, departed at least 45 minutes earlier than U.S. officials in Washington have said. Witnesses here also suggest that the attack may have begun as many as 15 minutes earlier than officials in Washington have said.

Witnesses also said there was no indication that anyone in the U.S. diplomatic compound was aware before the assault that protests had broken out in neighboring Egypt over an inflammatory film about the Prophet Muhammad that was produced in the United States.

The differences in the timelines could mean that CIA officers stationed in the compound just 1.2 miles away may have waited as long as 40 minutes before setting out to assist the besieged consulate and might not have arrived there until more than an hour after the attack began. A timeline released by the CIA says that help was dispatched after just 25 minutes and that it took the rescue squad 25 minutes to arrive.

At a minimum, the witness accounts suggest that after two months, the U.S. government still may not know the basic sequence of events and when key moments in the assault occurred.

Since the attacks, events have unfolded very differently for the two compounds.

At the consulate, gawkers and looters still could enter the property, and no repairs had been made to the burned-out buildings.

Two months after he died here of smoke inhalation, Stevens' clothes still hung in the closet; his ties were strewn on the floor.

In the building that served as an office and operations center, State Department stationery littered the floor and lettered Post-it notes left by the FBI on the day agents came here to investigate were stuck throughout the compound buildings.

But at the CIA safe house, American officials cleared their property within days of the attack. By Sept. 14, three new families had moved into the four houses that make up the compound, according to a gatekeeper at the door. Nearby residents said the landlord wanted Libyans living there as soon as possible, so his property wouldn't be destroyed by extremists angry that the CIA had been stationed there.

What took place in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11 and the early morning of Sept. 12 is the subject of at least three congressional hearings this week, beginning with a closed session of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee Tuesday.

What new information might be presented at those hearings isn't clear. The hearings are closed to the public, and whatever details emerge most likely will come in the form of leaks from the participants.

In addition to Stevens, a State Department computer expert, Sean Smith, died at the consulate. Two CIA security contractors, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died several hours later when assailants attacked the CIA annex, to which survivors of the assault on the consulate had fled.

According to witnesses, Stevens had arrived in Benghazi on Sept. 10 for a four-day visit, his first extensive stay in this city since he assumed the ambassador's post in May.

On the evening of Sept. 11, Stevens met with the Turkish consul here, Ali Sait Akin, in what everyone agrees was his last official act. While State Department officials said Stevens escorted the Turkish consul out of the compound at 8:30 p.m., a guard at the compound and an official familiar with the meeting said Akin left at 7:45 p.m.

A 31-year-old security guard employed by a British contracting company, the Blue Mountain Group, said he distinctly remembered the time of the meeting because about a half-hour before Akin was scheduled to meet with Stevens, the ambassador approached the guard, introduced himself and asked what security measures were needed to allow the Turkish consul to enter, including what kind of badge the Turkish delegation needed to enter the compound. Stevens addressed the guard in Arabic and told him Akin would arrive at 6:30 p.m. for an hourlong meeting.

As the guard and Stevens spoke, the protests in Cairo had been going on for nearly two hours. Stevens didn't mention the film to the guard, and no one from the compound warned the guard about possible protests throughout the night, the guard said.

Akin arrived on time, and the men met for an hour, the guard said. While they discussed security broadly, they didn't talk about the film, the protests or the Sept. 11 anniversary, said an official familiar with the meeting. They strolled around the compound, and Akin left at 7:45 p.m.

The guard made a note of the time of Akin's arrival and departure in a book in which the guards tracked all movements, from official visits to when the cook arrived, he said.

As of four days ago, no U.S. or Libyan official had questioned Akin about his meeting with Stevens, according to the official familiar with the meeting.

State Department officials have said the attack started at 9:40 p.m., a time that the CIA timeline also sets as the approximate beginning. A Pentagon account of its response said the assault started at 9:42 p.m.

But two guards at the compound told McClatchy that the attack began earlier; one said at 9:25 p.m. and the other at 9:35.

One guard, who was at the main gate and placed the assault's beginning at 9:25 p.m., said a colleague stationed at a side gate about 25 yards away had alerted him by radio that attackers were approaching. The guard said he stuck his head out a window in the compound's wall and saw the attackers on one side of the road, near where his colleague was stationed, and Libyan police on the other side of the road fleeing. He said he hit the alarm button to alert the compound that it was under attack.

Behind the compound, at a nearby restaurant, a Western diplomat who was having dinner heard a mortar round go off around 9:30 p.m., presumably after the attackers had arrived at the compound. When he was told that U.S. officials put the start of the attack at 9:40 p.m. he paused and said he was dubious. "It was no later than 9:40 p.m., maximum," he said, after a long pause. The diplomat asked that neither he nor the country he represents be identified, also because of the sensitivity of the matter.


NANCY A. YOUSSEF / MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens' clothes still hung in the bedroom of the burned-out U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when this photo was taken Nov. 8.




BEN CURTIS / AP
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens




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