WASHINGTON – The two former Navy SEALs killed in last week’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi were not part of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ official security detail but took up arms in an effort to protect the facility when it was overrun by insurgents, U.S. officials tell the Washington Guardian.
The two former SEALS, Tyrone Woods, 41, and Glen Doherty, 42, were not employed by the State Department diplomatic security office and instead were what is known as personal service contractors who had other duties related to security, the officials said.
They stepped into action, however, when Stevens became separated from the small security detail normally assigned to protect him when he traveled from the more fortified embassy in Tripoli to Benghazi, the officials said.
The two ex-Seals and others engaged in a lengthy firefight with the extremists who attacked the compound, a fight that stretched from the inner area of the consulate to an outside annex and a nearby safe house — a location that the insurgents appeared to know about, the officials said.
The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.
“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department.
The administration has not fully described the two former Navy SEALs’ activities, characterizing their work only vaguely as being security related. “Our embassies could not carry on our critical work around the world without the service and sacrifice of brave people like Tyrone and Glen,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the attacks.
As recently as Sunday, UN Ambassador Susan Rice gave a similar description. “Two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security. That was their function. And indeed, there were many other colleagues who were doing the same with them,” Rice told ABC’s This Week program.
In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.
The details emerged the same day that U.S. officials confirmed in public a Washington Guardian story Friday that U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida or its affiliates played a role in the attack. “We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda’s affiliates,” Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterrorism Center, told lawmakers.
Administration officials had downplayed al-Qaida connections shortly after the attack.
Many U.S. agencies in foreign hotspots like Benghazi rely on and even share contract workers with special skills like those of retired Navy SEALs for security, reconnaissance and threat assessments.
Unlike full embassies such as the one in Tripoli, consulates like Benghazi usually don’t have a contingent of Marines to provide security, and private contractors help fulfill some of those responsibilities. The Washington Guardian reported last week concerns about the embassy security that predated the deadly attack.
Those briefed on the latest intelligence say investigators are trying to determine when and why Stevens’ official State Department security team got separated from the ambassador when the attacks occurred the evening of Sept. 11.
The separation of the team from the ambassador remains one of the more serious matters under review, the officials said.
In addition, while the administration has downplayed any link to al-Qaida, there is evidence some of the attackers were affiliated with another group that sympathizes with al-Qaida and has grown more influential in Libya and other parts of north Africa.
State Department officials did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The current evidence leads U.S. intelligence to believe that a band of Islamist extremists with some ties to the north African affiliate of al-Qaida had accumulated a stash of weapons and extra human muscle, performed some reconnaissance to identify possible U.S. targets, and may have even infiltrated the Libyan security forces that help protect the consulate in hopes of eventually conducting a terrorist operation somewhere in Benghazi.
However, U.S. intelligence does not believe — at present — that the attackers specifically targeted Stevens, official said. Instead, they think the attackers sprang into action when, seeing crowds forming outside the consulate on Sept. 11, they perceived an opportunity to carry out a terrorist attack, officials said.
“Yes, they were killed in a terrorist attack on our embassy,” Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “The best information we have now, the facts that we have now, indicates an opportunistic attack on our embassy.”
U.S. officials say they have some evidence at least one of the attackers had prior connections to al-Qaida’s senior leadership and that others were linked to a sympathetic spinoff group in northern Africa known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is gaining influence in Libya.
Specifically, U.S. intelligence is investigating whether there is any connection to an al-Qaida-linked player named Sufyan Ben Qumu, who was captured by U.S. officials after the September 11, 2001 attacks and held at Guantanamo Bay for years before being released to Libyan authorities by the Bush administration in 2007. Qumu has emerged in recent months as an increasingly influential Islamist figure in eastern Libya, near Benghazi.
Fox News reported Wednesday night he might be a mastermind of the attack, but U.S. intelligence officials said such conclusions are premature.
“There’s an active effort to uncover those individuals and groups who were responsible for the attack. Any suggestion that a leading suspect or