Washington: Two of the four US deaths in Benghazi might have been prevented, military leaders say, if commanders had known more about the intensity of the sporadic gunfire directed at the CIA facility where Americans had taken refuge and had pressed to get a rescue team there faster.
Senior military leaders have told Congress in closed-door testimony that after the first attack on the main US diplomatic compound in the Libyan city on September 11, 2012, they thought the fighting had subsided and the Americans who had fled to the CIA base about a mile away were safe.
In fact, they were facing intermittent small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades around midnight and had returned fire. Then the attackers dispersed.
Hours later, at first light, an 11-minute mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attack slammed into the CIA annex, killing security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The Benghazi matter has become a rallying cry for Republicans, who have been holding congressional inquiries and hammering President Barack Obama`s administration for its response in the final weeks of Obama`s 2012 re-election campaign, leveling accusations of both incompetence and cover-up.
Benghazi could be a big issue ahead of November`s congressional elections and the presidential race in 2016, especially if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is on the ballot.
Democrats contend Republicans are obsessed with using a tragedy to score political points.
In hindsight, retired General Carter Ham, then head of the US military command in Africa, said in his testimony he would have pressed Libyan contacts in the defense ministry and other officials to help speed up the evacuation of Americans from Benghazi.
Also, a special operations team that had been dispatched from Croatia to Sicily after the first attack might have made it to Benghazi, if a host of variables were ideal, a quick departure, wind direction and speed, and an unobstructed runway to land a US aircraft.
Ham said "in a perfect world, with no other disruptions or distractions," it could have happened.
As it turned out, a six-man security team, including Special Forces personnel that arrived at Benghazi airport at 1:30 am, was held up there for hours by Libyan militia.
"In my view, that time delay, that inability of the team to get off of the Benghazi airport and get to the annex and back I think allowed sufficient time for the second attack to be organized and conducted," said Ham, who was in Washington at the time of the attacks.