Masked from public view, two of the U.S. military's elite special operations commandos have been awarded medals for bravery for a mission that further undercuts the Obama administration's original story about the Benghazi tragedy.
For months, administration officials have claimed no special operations forces were dispatched from outside Libya to Benghazi during the Sept. 11, 2012, al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA annex because none was within range.
The Pentagon, under intense public criticism for not coming to the aid of besieged Americans, published an official timeline in November that carefully danced around the issue.
It said time and distance prevented any commandos outside Libya from reaching a CIA compound under attack. The timeline disclosed that a reinforcement flight 400 miles away in Tripoli contained two "DoD personnel" but did not describe who they were. Later, the official State Department report on Benghazi said they were "two U.S. military personnel" - but provided no other details. It made no mention of special operations forces.
But sources directly familiar with the attack tell The Washington Times that a unit of eight special operators - mostly Delta Force and Green Beret members - were in Tripoli the night of the attack, on a counterterrorism mission that involved capturing weapons and wanted terrorists from the streets and helping train Libyan forces.
When word of the Benghazi attack surfaced, two members of that military unit volunteered to be dispatched along with five private security contractors on a hastily arranged flight from Tripoli to rescue Americans in danger, the sources said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the special operations forces' existence inside Libya was secret.
The two special operations forces arrived in time to engage in the final, ferocious firefight between the terrorists and Americans holed up in the CIA annex near the ill-fated diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the sources added.
The two special operators were awarded medals for valor for helping repel a complex attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens, another American diplomat and two former Navy SEALs, but spared many more potential casualties.
"Yes, we had special forces in Tripoli, and two in fact did volunteer and engaged heroically in the efforts to save Americans," one source told The Times. "The others were asked to stay behind to help protect Tripoli in case there was a coordinated attack on our main embassy.
"The remaining [special operations forces] were ready to dispatch the next morning, but by that time American personnel had been evacuated to the airport, local militias had provided additional security and it was determined there was no need for them to be dispatched at that point," the source added.
Pressed why the Pentagon and administration officials did not publicly acknowledge the special operations forces' contribution that tragic night, the sources said officials decided that their anti-terror work inside Libya was sensitive and closely guarded. In addition, U.S. officials did not have a Status of Forces Agreement in place that would have authorized the troops' presence, the sources said.
The history of the Benghazi attack is infamous in part for what the White House and Pentagon did not do: no warplanes and no rescue troops from outside Libya.
The revelation that some special operations forces did make it to Benghazi the night of the attack is the latest to undermine a carefully crafted story line put out by the president and his aides in the weeks leading into the 2012 election. The administration has since acknowledged that parts of that story line were misleading.
"On the one hand, it is an indictment of the lack of contingency planning by both CIA and DoD, especially given the rising threat profiles in Libya that were well understood - and appropriately reported back to D.C. by agency reps on the ground," said retired Army Col. Ken Allard. "So why weren't there more than just two Delta Force guys to send? Above all: Where were the air and naval resources that should have routinely been included in any contingency planning worthy of the name?"
The original account misled the public about the role of al Qaeda. The White House falsely asserted that the attacks arose from a spontaneous riot spurred by an anti-Islam video, when the intelligence community had evidence almost immediately that the assault was planned by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The administration has blamed editing of "talking points" for the misleading accounts, the most famous of which was given on national television by Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, five days after the attack.
But a second thread of the administration's story line was that no U.S. special operations forces were deployed to Benghazi because none was within range to arrive during the eight-hour onslaught.
"The bottom line is this: that we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Congress this year. "Very simply, although we had forces deployed to the region, time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response."
Mr. Panetta, who has since left office, eventually acknowledged that two soldiers were involved in the firefight, but he offered little detail.
"The quickest response option available was a Tripoli-based security team that was located at the embassy in Tripoli.," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February. "And to their credit, within hours, this [seven]-man team, including two U.S. military personnel, chartered a private airplane, deployed to Benghazi. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the annex facility, they came under attack by mortar and rocket-propelled grenades."
What Mr. Panetta left unspoken in public, however, was why those troops were in Tripoli and who else accompanied them.
At the time of the al Qaeda attacks, the military was setting up a terrorist-hunting unit in Tripoli that included U.S. Special Operations Command's super-secret Delta Force and Green Berets, the sources say.
Gregory Hicks, who was deputy chief of station in Tripoli, sent the reinforcements in conjunction with the CIA. On a night when Mr. Panetta decided he did not have enough information to commit troops, Mr. Hicks decided he did.
Delta Force is nation's premier counterterrorism unit, along with the Navy's SEAL Team 6, controlled by Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. Delta has been working with the CIA to nab wanted terrorists in Libya.
More than a year after the Benghazi attack, on Oct. 5, Delta soldiers in Tripoli captured fugitive al Qaeda terrorist Abu Anas al Libi, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
CBS' "60 Minutes" reported Sunday that the annex was defended by two Delta soldiers. The Washington Times confirmed the information last week and learned that they were part of the small reinforcement flight from Tripoli. They were awarded medals for valor. The CIA also has bestowed medals to its employees who defended the mission and annex.
The charter flight proved ill-fated. After terrorists stormed the U.S. mission in Benghazi at 9:45 p.m. local time, killing Stevens and communications aide Sean Smith, surviving diplomats and State Department security personnel made a mad dash. In armored vehicles, they arrived just after midnight at the annex commanded by a retired Army officer turned CIA operative. A rescue team from the annex also brought back survivors from the mission.
The Hicks-ordered flight arrived in Benghazi in time to help at 1:15 a.m. - but they could not get various Libyan militias to provide transportation to the annex.
The annex inhabitants had plenty of weapons to hold off a direct assault, like the one that breached and burned the U.S. mission. Huddled there was a mix of CIA officers and security personnel, such as former SEAL Tyrone Woods, and employees of Britain's Blue Mountain personal security team.
The Tripoli team finally arrived at about 5 a.m. Sept. 12. Exactly what the two Delta soldiers did is not contained in any public account. But it is known that ex-SEAL Glen Doherty, who was on the flight, joined Woods on the roof to man machine guns. Within minutes, five mortar rounds hit on or near the annex. Three hit the roof, killing both former SEALs and badly wounding State Department security officer David Ubben.
The State Department's official account said men went to the roof and carried the dead and wounded defenders below.
A source said annex defenders killed at least 20 terrorists during an on-and-off firefight that lasted nearly eight hours. The terrorists who planned the mission attack also knew of the annex and were able to place mortars within striking range.