Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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What Was That Drone Doing in Benghazi?

by Micah Zenko
November 2, 2012

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames after an attack on September 11, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters). The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames after an attack on September 11, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Margaret Coker, “CIA Takes Heat for Role in Libya,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2012.

At 5:41 p.m. Eastern time, Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Petraeus. She wanted to make sure the two agencies were on the same page. Shortly before that call, at 4:30 p.m., the Pentagon’s command center had alerted Defense Secretary Panetta and others to the attack. Minutes later, the U.S. military’s Africa Command redirected an unarmed drone from its surveillance mission over militant camps to Benghazi. When the drone arrived at 5:11 p.m. Eastern time, cameras captured images of burning buildings, helping officials in Washington pinpoint which facilities had been targeted by militants. But the images didn’t help the CIA team on the ground respond to the attacks, officials said.


Ken Dilanian, “U.S. Says CIA Responded Within 25 Minutes to Benghazi Attack,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2012.

They insisted there was no viable military option to disrupt what amounted to a series of sporadic attacks in a crowded city full of people sympathetic to the U.S. There were no armed drones in the region and airstrikes were not called for, officials said.

Shortly after 11 p.m. a surveillance drone had arrived from elsewhere in Libya — about an hour after it was requested, officials said. But the video feed was not seen by the president, contrary to some news reports. And the feed did not offer analysts a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground, officials said…

The drone overhead was not armed. Even if it had been, there were no viable targets, officials said.


Eric Schmitt, “CIA Played Major Role Fighting Militants in Libya Attack,” New York Times, November 1, 2012.

A four-hour lull in the fighting beginning shortly after midnight seemed to suggest that the worst was over. An unarmed military drone that the C.I.A. took control of to map possible escape routes relayed reassuring images to Tripoli and Washington. But just before dawn, and soon after a C.I.A.-led team of reinforcements, including two military commandos, arrived from Tripoli, a brief but deadly mortar attack surprised the Americans. Two of the C.IA. security officers who were defending the base from a rooftop were killed…

At 11:11 p.m., the Predator drone arrived over the mission compound. Within 20 minutes, all United States personnel, except for Mr. Stevens, whom the American security officers could not find in the chaos, left the mission, coming under fire as they did…

In fact, the official said, the military diverted a Predator drone from a reconnaissance mission in Darnah, 90 miles away, in time to oversee the mission’s evacuation. The two commandos, based at the embassy in Tripoli, joined the reinforcements. And a military transport plane flew the wounded Americans and Mr. Stevens’s body out of Libya.


Greg Miller, “CIA Rushed to Save Diplomats as Libya Attack Was Underway,” Washington Post, November 1, 2012.

The agency mobilized the evacuation effort, took control of an unarmed U.S. military drone to map possible escape routes, dispatched an emergency security team from Tripoli, the capital, and chartered aircraft that ultimately carried surviving American personnel to safety, U.S. officials said.


David Ignatius, “In Benghazi Timeline, CIA Errors But No Evidence of Conspiracy,” Washington Post, November 1, 2012.

11:11 p.m.: An unarmed military Predator drone arrives over the compound to provide aerial reconnaissance. The drone had been diverted from a mission over Darnah, about 90 minutes away. But without weapons, it can’t help much.

5:15 a.m.: A new Libyan assault begins, this time with mortars. Two rounds miss and the next three hit the roof. The rooftop defenders never “laser the mortars,” as has been reported. They don’t know the weapons are in place until the indirect fire begins, nor are the mortars observed by the drone overhead. The defenders have focused their laser sights earlier on several Libyan attackers, as warnings not to fire. At 5:26 the attack is over. Woods and Doherty are dead and two others are wounded.


Sean Hannity, “President Obama ‘Offended’ Over Benghazi Criticism?” Fox News, October 30, 2012.

Then on the night this happened, we now know they were watching in real-time at the State Department. Our intelligence knew. For two weeks the president lied to the American people and told them he didn’t know if it was terror-related. I want to know what they knew, when they knew it, and were they aware of the requests for help to bail these guys out as people like Ty Woods were fighting.

He’s giving vague Clintonesque answers. He’s parsing his words, but you’re right. It comes down to what did he know, when did he know it, and why did he say one thing to the American people when our government had video of what was happening? I’m told there are three videos that exist. There’s predator drone video of the attack. There is audio that is available of these guys begging for help. That’s what Ty Woods heard that caused him to disobey orders.


John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and Lindsay Graham, Letter to Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and Eric Holder, October 26, 2012.

We are writing to you to request the immediate declassification of all surveillance video in and around the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi for the two days—September 11 and 12, 2012—that it and related U.S. facilities were under attack. It has been reported that the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of State had assets, both air-and ground-based, that recorded the events of those fateful days, and we understand that video is now in the possession of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has been classified Top Secret.

It is vitally important that the American people know all of the facts surrounding the attack in Benghazi last month, and this surveillance video can shed important light on the nature of the attack and what kind of response could have been effective while it was ongoing. Many of our constituents are demanding answers to these and other important questions, we need the best possible information to fulfill our responsibilities to our fellow citizens. We therefore request that you declassify this video immediately.

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  • Posted by Don Bacon

    What kind of response could have been effective?
    There is the rumored — RUMORED — sacking of two top military leaders because they wanted to send aid to Benghazi.

    *General Carter Ham, CG AFRICOM, was told to stand down from sending aid to Benghazi, that General Ham on his own decided to proceed, and that he was then relieved of his command. On 18 October 2012. General David Rodriguez was nominated to succeed Army General Ham.

    *Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette, leader of the Stennis strike group recently arrived in the Fifth Fleet area, was relieved for “inappropriate leadership judgment.” On board Stennis on 9/11 were two jets and two helicopters loaded with 40 marines, ready and waiting for their orders to deploy to Benghazi to rescue the consulate personnel.

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