Former CIA chief in Benghazi challenges '13 Hours' film version of 2012 attack
By Adam Goldman and Greg Miller | The Washington Post | Published: January 15, 2016
It is the most fateful moment in a movie that purports to present a searingly accurate account of the 2012 attacks that left four Americans dead in Benghazi, Libya: a scene in which the highest-ranking CIA operative at a secret agency compound orders his security team to "stand down" rather than rush off to rescue U.S. diplomats under siege less than a mile away.
According to the officer in charge of the CIA's Benghazi base that night, the scene in the movie is entirely untrue.
"There never was a stand-down order," said the base chief known as Bob, speaking publicly for the first time. "At no time did I ever second guess that the team would depart."
Nor, he said, did he say anything that could be "interpreted as equivalent" as an order to stand down.
In a lengthy interview with reporters from The Washington Post, Bob provided new details about the attacks and his interactions with J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who perished in them. He agreed to talk on the condition his last name not be used because even though he has retired, his cover has not been lifted.
"I thought I would regret it if I didn't," he said about finally speaking out. "So much of this information has been wrong."
The movie, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," is based on a book co-written by U.S. contractors hired to protect the CIA base in Benghazi. Bob said he was familiar with the contents of the book but had not seen the movie, which opened Friday. Scenes from the film were described to him by a Washington Post reporter.
The question of whether someone had issued a "stand down" has loomed over Benghazi since the immediate aftermath of the attack. The initial speculation centered mainly on whether an official in Washington, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had impeded rescue attempts — an allegation rejected by a series of congressional inquiries. A 2014 House Intelligence Committee report found "no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support."
The book and film, by contrast, blame Bob for blocking the departure of security operators until it was too late. The author of the book, Mitchell Zuckoff, said in a telephone interview that he stands by the depiction and that it is based on first-hand accounts.
"I think the evidence is extremely strong that the guys' account is far more credible" than that of the CIA chief, Zuckoff said. He said he made multiple requests through the CIA to speak with Bob but that those requests were denied.
Zuckoff said he had numerous conversations with the CIA office of public affairs about the project, but officials said those talks came only after a draft of the book was finished and focused on whether it disclosed classified material that contractors were obligated to protect. The agency also met with the director of the film, Michael Bay, and cited a list of concerns about the contents of the book and movie script, officials said.
The book publishers bypassed the CIA clearance process typically required on works by current or former employees and contractors. Zuckoff said that was in part because the agency did not want the authors to attach their real names to the book, and that doing so would have undermined its credibility.
The book and movie render an unflattering portrait of the CIA and Bob, a former Army medic who spent 32 years with the agency.
"No one will mistake this movie for a documentary," CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said. "It's a distortion of the events and people who served in Benghazi that night. It's shameful that, in order to highlight the heroism of some, those responsible for the movie felt the need to denigrate the courage of other Americans who served in harm's way."
Libya wasn't Bob's first war zone. The former veteran case officer, now in his early 60s, spent time in Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan as a clandestine case officer assigned to the Latin America and Near East divisions.
A rumpled figure with short gray whiskers, Bob said he arrived in Benghazi as base chief in December 2011. Under his command were the security team, known inside the agency as the Global Response Staff, as well as contract case officers with military experience and other U.S. personnel.
The book accuses Bob of treating the Global Response Staff contractors like "Wal-Mart security guards." He said that is a "distortion," describing the security team as highly accomplished. "These guys were heroes," he said.
Bob met with Stevens on Sept. 10, 2012, when the CIA briefed the ambassador at the diplomatic facility shortly after his arrival from Tripoli. "We did try to convey the seriousness of the terrorism environment in eastern Libya," he said.
Although there was no specific threat information against Stevens, Bob said he was already familiar with two men later implicated in the assaults on U.S. facilities: Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was charged with plotting the attacks and has been brought to the United States to stand trial, and Sufian bin Qumu, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who remains in Libya.
Bob said he first heard gunfire about 9:42 p.m. and suspected immediately that the diplomatic compound was under attack. The handful of U.S. diplomatic security personnel there also alerted the base and the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
Bob said he began calling Libyan groups and making an effort to "help get eyes up," a reference to surveillance drones that were directed toward the compound. He said the base immediately "went into collect mode to try to figure out what was happening to the ambassador" and said Stevens' rescue was always a priority.
According to the book and the movie, the security contractors assembled their weapons and jumped into vehicles to begin a rescue mission. Bob, they said, ordered them to wait.
Bob acknowledged that he was "concerned about an ambush" and that a departure by the security team would have "left our base more vulnerable to attack." But, he said, "there was never any question that there was going to be a rescue mission," and no instruction by him to hold off.
Instead, Bob said he spent much of the immediate period after the attack began, about 20 minutes, standing beside the leader of the Global Response Staff team — who still works at the CIA — scrambling to enlist local security teams.
One of the things he wanted was a gun truck and support. Technicals," Bob said. The militias they contacted were evasive. One offered to shelter the U.S. personnel at a nearby militia compound, Bob said, while others "didn't necessarily want to help us and some just didn't know what to do."
When the team leader realized reinforcements weren't coming, "he left" along with the contractors. "If there was any delay, it was a matter of minutes. It took a good 15 to 17 minutes just to get ready," Bob said.
About 10:03 p.m., according to a congressional timeline, the CIA security contractors left for the diplomatic compound. More than 40 minutes later, after parking some distance away and approaching on foot with weapons drawn, they arrived at the facility. Stevens was missing and Sean Smith, a State Department communications expert, was dead from smoke inhalation inside the diplomatic villa. The attackers were gone.
Eventually, all of the Americans fled the compound and headed back to the CIA base.
"A good part of the night was trying to find out where the ambassador was and what had happened to him," he said.
The CIA eventually learned that Libyans had located Stevens' body and taken it to a local hospital.
The other major controversy surrounding Benghazi has focused on how the attack was initially portrayed by the White House as a violent protest rather than a terrorist attack.
Bob said there was "some reporting" even in the midst of the attack that a terror group known as Ansar al-Sharia was involved, but said he played no role in shaping those White House talking points.
Bob said he took only one call that evening from CIA headquarters and that it lasted two minutes. "I just cut it short," he said. He declined to comment on continued political fighting in Washington over the attack.
The following morning, about 5:15 a.m., the CIA base came under mortar fire and two Global Response Staff operators, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed.
Bob said everyone acted heroically, including a female case officer who was depicted negatively in the movie.
"She was nothing but great that night. She was calm and collected." Bob also praised two members of the military — Delta Force operators — who flew from Tripoli to Benghazi to help the besieged CIA base.
"These folks had tremendous war experience," he said.
The Americans finally evacuated the CIA base at dawn, escorted by a Libyan militia convoy to the airport. Bob said they destroyed the base's computer hard drives before they left.
The movie shows Bob wanting to stay behind to collect intelligence and depicts one of the security contractors asking, "For what, so more guys like [the two contractors killed] have to save your ass again?"
"That never happened," Bob said. Incredulous and eyebrows raised, he asked, "I was going to stay behind by myself?"
Bob said he also returned to the CIA base in Benghazi weeks later.
"I remember every second of it," he said. "We had lost two brave Americans on the roof at that facility. It was difficult."
Bob declined to talk about how he felt about being singled out in the movie. "I will survive this," he said. "We had people that didn't survive. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about them."
Karen DeYoung and Julie Tate contributed to this report.