American Commandos Say They Were Ordered to ‘Stand Down’ During Benghazi Attack

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Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the first public account of the 2012 attack in Benghazi by American forces on the ground, five U.S. commandos tasked with guarding the CIA base there say the station chief ordered them to stand down for 20 minutes, as those in the nearby diplomatic mission were under fire. The disclosure comes in the book 13 Hours, which was obtained a week before its release by the New York Times and Fox News. The men say they were ready within five minutes and argued with the CIA station chief, referred to only as "Bob," as he ordered them to wait in their vehicles.

"It had probably been 15 minutes I think, and … I just said, 'Hey, you know, we gotta — we need to get over there, we're losing the initiative,'" co-author John Tiegen told Fox News. "And Bob just looks straight at me and said, 'Stand down, you need to wait.'"

U.S. officials have said previously that the CIA security team held back while attempting to enlist the help of their Libyan militia allies, and the commandos speculate that Bob was concerned about revealing the existence of the CIA base in Benghazi. They say that after they heard a diplomatic security agent shout over the radio, "If you guys do not get here, we are going to die!" they decided to disobey their orders and head to the mission. By the time they got there, it was too late to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens and State Department computer technician Sean Smith, who died of smoke inhalation. "I strongly believe if we'd left immediately, they'd still be alive today," Tiegen said.

The commandos, who were former U.S. special forces officers hired as private contractors, continued fighting the Libyan attackers throughout the night, and two of them were killed after they pulled back to the CIA base. Five members of the team — Tiegen, Mark Geist, Kris Paronto, and two commandos using pseudonyms — co-wrote the book with Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University (and, full disclosure, my former adviser).

A senior intelligence official told the Times via email that "a prudent, fast attempt was made to rally local support for the rescue effort and secure heavier weapons," but "there was no second-guessing those decisions being made on the ground" and "there were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support."

When asked about the intelligence official's claim that the CIA team was delayed, but never told to "stand down," Tiegen countered, "No, it happened." "All I can talk about is what happened on that ground that night," Paronto added. "To us. To myself, twice, and to — to Tig, once. It happened that night. We were told to wait, stand — and stand down. We were delayed three times."