Classified United States military units are operating in the region near Libya since the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, according to the director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
The disclosure that secret U.S. military forces were dispatched to Libya recently was revealed in a letter sent Wednesday to the House Armed Services Committee by Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
Tidd said that after the attack in Benghazi, the U.S. European Command sent a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon to reinforce security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
“Additional classified capabilities were deployed to the region,” Tidd said, in what other defense officials said was a reference to the deployment of special operations commandos.
Tidd was responding to a letter from Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.) about whether the military recommended bolstering security in Libya prior to the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The U.S. military also has been working with the remnants of the Libyan military’s special operations forces as the new provisional government seeks to set up a central military and reduce the control of the large number of heavily armed militias, many of them Islamist-run, around the country.
On Sept. 12, President Obama vowed to “work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”
So far, administration efforts to track down and apprehend or kill the attackers have seen limited success.
First, an FBI investigative team was delayed for weeks in gaining access to the burned out Benghazi compound.
Then, the New York Times interviewed one of the ringleaders of the attackers in Benghazi, Ahmed Abu Khattala, openly dining at a luxury hotel in Benghazi. Abu Khattala said Oct. 18 that no one had questioned him about the attack.
Abu Khattala is a member of the al Qaeda-linked militia Ansar al Sharia, which is believed to have carried out the attack.
Additionally, Tunisian authorities detained Ali Harzi, an Ansar al Sharia member and one of the men suspected of carrying out the Sept. 11 attack. Harzi and another terrorist were arrested in Turkey and returned to Tunis. The other man is reportedly free.
The comments regarding classified forces were included in several letters that Tidd and two other senior military officials, including the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, sent to McKeon stating that they did not recommend increasing military forces for the security of U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel in Libya after a Pentagon Site Security Team ended its mission in Libya on Aug. 3.
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Africa Command commander, stated in his letter to McKeon that no one from his command recommended bolstering military forces in Libya in response “to the threat environment.”
“While the Accountability Review Board continues in its work reviewing any and all requests made by the Department of State, I can state with certainty that U.S. Africa Command did not receive any direction to provide U.S. military forces to augment security for U.S. personnel in Libya beyond the expiration of the Site Security Teams’ mandate through Aug. 3, 2012,” Ham stated in the Oct. 31 letter.
However, the four-star general said all email accounts of U.S. military personnel in Libya after Aug. 4 were frozen “to assess if any informal communications with personal recommendations were sent during that timeframe in which they were under my command and no longer under Chief of Mission authority.”
“To date, our due diligence has revealed no such information,” Ham said.
Tidd said in his letter that no one in his office urged the State Department or other agencies to increase security, nor did the Pentagon seek better security for U.S. officials in Libya.
Tidd also said no one in the Joint Staff operations directorate recommended adding forces to Libya before last month’s attack.
Adm. William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, sent a similar letter to the House committee chairman.
McKeon wrote to the military leaders Oct. 18 seeking answers about whether there was advance warning of an attack in Benghazi and the need for increased military and security forces.
McKeon had demanded a response by Nov. 19 but an aide to the chairman said the military leaders were blocked from responding by the office of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
McKeon’s questions revealed that there were indications that within the military there were warnings about terrorist threats.
The Daily Beast reported Thursday that the State Department also did not request military backup for the Benghazi compound during the Sept. 11 attack.
The CIA issued a statement last week that said, cryptically, “No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” The CIA operated a covert annex close to the Benghazi diplomatic compound.
Fox News Channel reported on Wednesday that a classified State Department cable sent from Tripoli to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi held an emergency meeting on Aug. 16 that warned the Benghazi compound was unable to withstand a terrorist attack.
“RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound,” the cable said.
The cable said the secretary was notified about “the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi … these groups ran the spectrum from Islamist militias, such as the QRF Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia, to ‘Takfirist thugs.’”
The cable said the diplomatic mission would seek more help for security.
“In light of the uncertain security environment, U.S. Mission Benghazi will submit specific requests to U.S. Embassy Tripoli for additional physical security upgrades and staffing needs by separate cover.”
Several Republican House leaders, including McKeon, wrote to Obama Sept. 25 expressing concerns about the administration’s failure to identify the attack as a terrorist strike by claiming initially it was a spontaneous reaction to a mysterious anti-Muslim video.
Earlier this week, McKeon challenged statements by Obama in a recent news interview that he ordered full protection of U.S. personnel.
“There appears to be a discrepancy between your directive and the actions taken by the Department of Defense,” McKeon said in a letter sent Monday.
He noted, “Despite the fact that the military had resources in the area, the military did not deploy any assets to secure U.S. military personnel in Benghazi during the hours the consulate and the annex were under attack.”
McKeon asked the president to answer specifically whether “at any time on Sept. 11, 2012, other than [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] assets, did you provide the authority for the military to take any and all necessary measures to secure U.S. personnel, including specifically the authority to enter Libyan airspace?”
Unconfirmed Internet reports appeared last week indicating that Ham, the Africom commander, was relieved of command for violating the chain of command by disregarding orders not to dispatch forces to rescue Americans in Benghazi during the attack.
Asked about the reports, a U.S. official said it is unclear if Ham was asked to send a military force to respond to the Sept. 11 attack and prepared to do so but was overruled by higher authorities.
The official said it is unlikely that Ham went ahead and tried to dispatch a rescue force.
However, asked whether Ham was relieved as a result of disobedience and replaced by his deputy, the official said, “We are absolutely certain this is untrue.”