CIA officers recount Benghazi attack at trial
Two battle-hardened CIA veterans grew emotional Tuesday as they recounted first-hand one of the most politically explosive events in recent U.S. history: the deadly 2012 attack on Americans at government facilities in Benghazi.
Testifying under unusual secrecy measures—including wearing what the judge described as “light disguise”—the CIA officers told a federal jury at the Washington trial of a Benghazi militia leader about how they flew in from Tripoli on the night of the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi only to eventually find themselves caught up in an intense firefight at a CIA annex nearby.
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While Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department computer technician Sean Smith appear to have died in the initial attack, the ensuing shelling of the CIA facility claimed the lives of CIA security contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and left State Department Diplomatic Security Agent David Ubben gravely wounded.
Libyan militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala is facing a slew of criminal charges, including conspiracy to murder the four Americans and to destroy U.S. property. Khattala, snatched by U.S. forces from a seaside villa near Benghazi in 2014, listened impassively as the CIA veterans detailed their harrowing ordeal.
The Benghazi attack and claims that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was lackadaisical in responding to the assault became a key storyline in the 2016 presidential campaign where Clinton was the Democratic nominee.
A series of congressional investigations found little evidence that anything could have been done that night to assist the Americans who came under fire, although Republicans were critical of Clinton and her aides for doing too little to address the security threats to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya as the situation deteriorated in 2012.
There was no discussion of the political impact of the episode during the testimony Tuesday.
The two CIA witnesses described leaving Tripoli around midnight on a small jet chartered for $30,000 in cash and arriving in Benghazi in the wee hours of the morning after the initial assault. After waiting a few hours at the airport for a local militia escort, the Americans headed to the CIA annex, about a mile and a half from the main U.S. compound.
“We came in and a few minutes later all hell broke loose,” recalled the CIA officer, an Arabic speaker who testified using the pseudonym Alexander Charles. “Maybe eight minutes since we arrived, they used mortars….You can feel the whole ground shaking….The building itself, the walls start falling apart, big blocks of cement falling.”
The officer, who said he has three decades of experience in the military and CIA, said he expected to die.
“All these years that I spent in the military really, I concluded that night that that was my last night on this Earth, pretty much, really,” he said. “I think if it continued we would be buried alive.”
The top security official for the CIA in Libya at the time, who used the name Roy Edwards when testifying Tuesday, also described the assault as frightening.
“It’s a pretty horrifying thing,” he said. “I would say you get used to it…but I knew were were taking fire and it was bad.”
Ubben was severely wounded by a mortar round on the roof of a key building in the CIA annex, Edwards recalled. The State Department security agent was brought morphine, but kept screaming in pain. “Despite that 20 milligrams, he was still screaming like—I can never forget that scream,” he said.
His testimony became halting as he described climbing to the rooftop of the building and hearing a colleague reporting that Doherty had died. “It didn’t register right away….He said, ‘Bub’s dead, move to the other medic,'” he said, before taking a long pause to maintain his composure. “I grabbed Ty by the pants and dragged him 15 [feet] to the ladder. He expired during that time.”
Charles said he and Edwards eventually concluded the situation was too perilous to remain at the annex.
“I said, ‘Let’s get out of here,'” Charles said, as the two men discussed clearing personnel off the roof where Ubben, Woods and Doherty had been trying to defend the annex. “He said, ‘I need to get Ty and Glen.’ I said, ‘Why do you need to get them? Just tell them to get down….’ And he looked at me and said, ‘They’re both dead.'”
After the Americans at the annex evacuated to the Benghazi airport and were loaded aboard the small jet, Charles decided that as an Arabic speaker he should stay in Benghazi to continue the effort to recover Stevens, who was thought to be dead but whose status was not certain. Charles said at one point he walked over to some Libyan militia members who were protecting the American group on the airport tarmac, along with the bodies of Smith, Doherty and Woods.