CIA's response to Benghazi attack under scrutiny

The US consulate compound in Benghazi is seen after an attack that killed four Americans.

WASHINGTON - Nearly two months after a deadly attack on a US consulate in Libya, a bitter row is still raging over who is to blame for the security breakdown, with the spotlight now shifting to the CIA's role.

Since the September 11 assault in Benghazi that killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, President Barack Obama, the State Department and the Pentagon have come under fire.

Republican supporters of Obama's rival Mitt Romney pounced on the issue in a hard-fought presidential campaign, keeping it in the spotlight.

Due to the clandestine nature of its work, the Central Intelligence Agency had initially had been spared from scrutiny, but now the spy service and its director, former army general David Petraeus, are on the defensive.

Media reports now question the CIA's actions and The Wall Street Journal suggested Friday the agency's fixation with secrecy may have led to confusion over security at the compound and crossed signals with the State Department.

According to the report, the US Benghazi mission was essentially a CIA operation instead of a diplomatic post, and most of the staff worked for the spy agency, citing a congressional investigator and other unnamed sources.

The State Department believed there was a formal agreement the CIA would provide back-up security in an emergency, but the intelligence service had a different view, the paper said.

The focus on the Central Intelligence Agency reflects fresh questions about the spy service's response as well as a turf war inside the government bureaucracy, as officials seek to shield their departments from criticism.

Intelligence officials took the unusual step of giving reporters a timeline of events, which they said showed the CIA acted swiftly and decisively.

"The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible," a senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

At the CIA compound in Benghazi, dubbed the "annex" in previous reports, news that the nearby consulate building was coming under attack first came in at 9:40 pm, (1940 GMT), said the senior official.

A security team of seven agents moved out to secure the consulate, arriving at 10:30 pm after coming under fire.

The team evacuated the staff but could not find the ambassador, and then drove back to the annex.

At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta sent an unarmed surveillance drone over the area, which arrived within about 90 minutes.

He also ordered troops from the United States and special operations forces in Europe to a NATO base in Sigonella, Italy for a potential rescue operation.

But by the time the units arrived in southern Italy, the consulate had been torched and ransacked.

"The fact of the matter is these forces were not in place until after the attacks were over," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Friday.

As heavily-armed militants laid siege to the consulate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned CIA chief Petraeus directly to ask for help from the agency, according to the Journal.

In Benghazi, the security team returned to the annex, where they faced sporadic gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. They returned fire and the attackers withdrew.

Another CIA security team, sent as reinforcements out of Tripoli, arrived at the compound at 5:15 am (0315 GMT).

Militants then launched a fresh assault against the annex and within minutes, two CIA employees were killed by a mortar round.

The intelligence official called the fallen CIA officers "heroes" and rejected allegations the agency had failed to coordinate with their State Department colleagues.

US government "officers" in Benghazi "cooperated well on security," he said.

But, contrary to what some State Department officials believed, the cooperation occurred "without formal interagency arrangements," the official said.

"If you're on the ground in a dangerous place you partner up. And that's exactly what happened in Benghazi."

Officials also defended the role of CIA chief Petraeus, saying he was "fully engaged from the start of the Agency's response, particularly in the rescue mission that was swift and aggressive."

Citing unnamed sources, the Journal said Petraeus was faulted by some for choosing not to appear at a ceremony marking the return of the bodies of the slain CIA employees and for attending the premiere of the film "Argo" the day lawmakers grilled the State Department over the attack.

Petraeus stayed away from the ceremony at Dover Air Force base because the three officers' link to the CIA had been kept secret and attending may have blown their cover, officials told the Journal.

The CIA director, an army general who rose to fame as commander of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, "receives daily updates on the issue and personally reviewed intelligence reports after the attack," the official said.

"This idea that he is somehow not engaged is baseless."

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