On September 11 and 12, 2012, in an attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. Diplomatic Compound (unofficially sometimes called a consulate) in Benghazi, Libya, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed — the first death of an American ambassador by a violent act since 1979. Chris Stevens had earned the admiration and respect of many local Benghazans by making improved relations between Libyans and Americans his calling — one that he was willing to take great risks to accomplish. Also killed that fateful night was the affable State Department computer specialist Sean Smith, known ironically to his friends in the online gaming world as “Vile Rat.”
Far more people would have died had it not been for the efforts of the Annex Security Team, a group of private security contractors, each of whom had served in the United States Marines, Army, or Navy, working for an organization called the Global Response Staff (“GRS”), who risked their lives and defied orders by leaving the nearby CIA Annex in order to save the State Department staff at the Diplomatic Compound.
But the terrorists weren’t finished. A few hours after the “consulate” burned, killing Stevens and Smith by smoke inhalation in what was supposed to be a safe haven within the primary residence on the walled property, they massed in force and attacked the CIA Annex to which the Team and the evacuated State Department staff had fallen back.
In that series of firefights, two more men, Glen “Bub” Doherty — who had arrived from Tripoli as part of a group of reinforcements — and Tyrone “Rone” Woods — a Team member and former Navy SEAL who also had paramedic training — lost their lives. Another member of the team, Mark “Oz” Geist, suffered devastating injuries to his arm (requiring 13 surgeries so far), while a Diplomatic Security agent, Dave Ubben, was also badly hurt.
The deaths of Bub and Rone, and the injuries to Oz and Ubben, occurred in the last major violent episode of the battle: a series of mortar attacks that were too precise to have been just “good luck” for the terrorists and belie the Obama administration’s early claims of a disorganized protest that simply turned violent.
The story of the attacks on both Compounds, the bravery of the Annex Security Team and others — as well as the apparent cowardice of some, including the CIA station chief on location — is told in a riveting new book entitled 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi.
The book, written by New York Times bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff in collaboration with the remaining members of the Team, is a riveting account of heroism and tragedy, something that you might expect to find (and equally not be able to put down) in a Tom Clancy novel and from which there will no doubt be a most adrenaline-pumping movie.
After all, how could a director improve on Oz, his body pounded and his left arm shredded by a mortar blast, about to be carried on a stretcher to the evacuation airplane, standing up and saying “Hell no! I walked into this country and I’m going to f***ing walk out of this town”?
Of the five surviving Team members, three use their real names in the book: Mark “Oz” Geist (Marines), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Army), and John “Tig” Tiegen (Marines). Two others use pseudonyms, going by Jack Silva (Navy) and Dave “D.B.” Benton (Marines). Each of them, including Rone, is a father, making even more remarkable the risks they took for their countrymen and more scandalous the reasonable conclusion that but for poor decision-making by high-ranking State Department and others the deaths in Benghazi, and perhaps the attack itself, might never have happened.
The book begins with Jack’s arrival in Benghazi, being wary of surveillance as soon as arriving at baggage claim, and being shown to the CIA Annex by Rone, who “told Jack that the summer in Benghazi would be his last job for the GRS… he wanted to spend more time with his wife and to help raise their infant son.”
After descriptions of the other team members — in which you really feel as if you know them at least a little bit — and an introduction to Ambassador Stevens, whose “optimism was tested from the start by instability and violence,” 13 Hours moves quickly into the violent events of the night of September 11 and the morning of September 12, 2012, beginning with the State Department Compound’s Libyan gate security fleeing — though they were unarmed in any case — allowing in “armed invaders ([who]… roamed freely through the dimly lit Compound, firing their weapons and chanting as they approached the buildings in packs, some stealing what they could carry, all trying to find the Americans.”
Your next enthralling hour or two of reading is of battles and tactics and bravery and confusion which for civilians is only imaginable as a 21st century Alamo — under attack by al Qaeda instead of Santa Ana’s army: “As Tig moved to join in, a [friendly] 17 February militiaman on the west side of Gunfighter Road fired two rocket-propelled grenades toward the men outside the Compound gate. The grenade-firing militiaman was positioned about twenty yards behind Tig, who heard the alarming sound of shells whizzing over his head. The grenades didn’t faze the attackers, who kept firing.”
And while I’ve offered an example involving John “Tig” Tiegen, every member of the team demonstrated almost inconceivable — again, at least to civilians — courage and determination. They would (and do) say that it’s simply what they were trained to do. Which does not lessen my admiration for them by even the smallest measure.
Yet despite everything, and this is the intention of the surviving members of the Team, if one person comes through the book as most memorable and, although I hesitate to suggest degrees of heroism, a man whom the other heroes themselves see as a hero, it is Tyrone “Rone” Woods, whom everyone on the team liked, trusted, and respected, and who lost his life in a terrorist mortar attack on a roof in Benghazi:
The former SEAL with the King Leonidas beard, who’d extended his stay in Benghazi to help protect Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who intended to retire from GRS operator trips to work with his wife, who was eager to raise his infant son and see his two older boys grow into men, who instinctively and compulsively watched over his fellow operators, who led the rescue charge into the Compound, who searched through a burning building for two missing men, and who answered the first two explosions by rising with a machine gun and returning fire, had absorbed the deadly concussive force of the explosion.
13 Hours recognizes but deliberately avoids partisan politics. Regarding some of the most common questions about what happened in Benghazi, such as “During the attack, was the U.S. military response appropriate, and if not, why not?”
Most answers have fallen on one side or the other of a partisan divide… Media reports have run the gamut on who, if anyone, in Washington deserves blame and punishment, and whether the attacks should be considered a tragedy, a scandal, or both. However, by early 2014 one conclusion had gained considerable traction across partisan lines: The attacks could have been prevented. That is, if only the State Department had taken appropriate steps to improve security at the Compound in response to the numerous warnings and incidents during the months prior.
Yes, the brave men of Benghazi are simply telling their story, but the words of Pericles ring as true as ever: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Simply as a matter of “the buck stops here” management responsibility, one can’t avoid the feeling that 13 Hours means that Hillary Clinton has more ’splainin’ to do if she seeks to be the next president of the United States.
As you look beyond the incredible story, the events in Benghazi offer as many questions as answers. Again, one cannot help but ask questions that might have political implications despite the authors’ explicit declarations that they are not trying to make political statements but simply to get the truth of that night’s events into the public sphere.
On Monday, in an exclusive interview for The American Spectator, I asked a few of these and other questions of Mark “Oz” Geist and John “Tig” Tiegen — three men who after enduring Benghazi have been willing to risk their own now-civilian privacy in order to tell their story:
Ross Kaminsky: Many aspects of that night seem like they might have been preventable. Let’s start with the initial situation on the ground. What did you make of it at the time and what do you make of it in retrospect?
Mark Geist: It was about like every other Third World country I’d been in… kind of a piece of crap. It was a lawless city. After the fall of Gaddafi, it was controlled by several different militias and they were all vying for control of various entities within the city, like the airport, the port, commerce, things like that, so they can make money.
RK: Did you think that the State Dept. security people, the State Department more broadly, even the CIA, had taken their own security seriously enough and done enough to be prepared for what could happen in a lawless city, much less in a lawless city on September 11th?
John Tiegen: Our side, we took measures, from the get-go, when we first got into Benghazi. For the State Dept. guys I’d say no. Even the very first trip that I did down in Benghazi, they were shorthanded. There’d be only like two Americans on that Compound, no principal officer, just two RSOs [Regional Security Officers] sitting there, not doing anything. Or they’d go on a move and only leave one American on the Compound. They were always understaffed and basically no security. I mean, the guys at the gate, they had no weapons; I don’t even think they had batons. There was a total lack of security over there.
RK: Did you think at the time that there was an unsafe reliance on Libyans for the security at the Compounds?
MG: My personal opinion is because of the relationship that people felt they had with the Libyans — most of the Libyans who lived there were supportive of us — it gave a false sense of security to some people. You have a town that’s controlled by militias. The militias weren’t friendly. At best, they were neutral to us. Some of them I guess were quasi-friendly but not somebody you’d want to trust your life to.
RK: One thing that I don’t really know even after reading the book: What was your team’s explicit responsibility, if any, for the State Department Compound?
JT: We had no requirement to go rescue them or do anything with them. We were augmenting our time to even escort the ambassador to the different events he was attending, just so they’d have extra security.
RK: During the attacks, you told the Team Leader that you wanted aerial military support as well as surveillance. What happened and didn’t happen when you made that request?
JT: It was Tanto who made that request. He made it pretty quick. He requested the IR and a Spectre gunship within 10 or 15 minutes. They just kinda said “Roger that. We’ll look into it.” All we ever got was the IR (drone surveillance), obviously.
RK: Did you ever figure out why?
RK: What do you make of the fact that you never figured out why?
MG: I think somebody was either afraid to make the decision or they felt that the situation wasn’t as grave as it was, which could lead you to the conclusion that maybe that’s [also] why they had us stand down and hold off for 30 minutes. Because they thought it could be handled in an easier manner, or they didn’t want the exposure or something.
RK: It’s not as if you guys are the type of people to call and say you need help except in the absolute worst possible situations. I just can’t imagine who would hear a call from any one of you and say “Well, maybe it’s not that serious.” I suppose that’s more of a comment than a question…
MG and JT: I would agree. I would agree with that.
RK: You talk in the book about the CIA station chief in Benghazi, whom you call “Bob,” and who refused to be interviewed for the book, as I gather from the book’s notes. Bob made some decisions which you’ve made clear you believe cost American lives. What did Bob do or not do, and what were the impacts of his actions or inactions, and perhaps you can include any thoughts on why he did what he did.
JT: Initially it would be to coordinate with [supposedly friendly militia] 17th Feb[ruary] guys so they knew we were coming. But it doesn’t — it shouldn’t — take 30 minutes to coordinate. That’s just “Hey, we have guys coming over. Don’t shoot at them…” kind of thing.
RK: In the book, you go a little further… it really seems that you guys think that Bob was a bit of a coward.
JT: Well, there were quite a few incidents in Benghazi before this where somebody would get tied up at a checkpoint, even at gunpoint, and he wouldn’t let the QRF team leave, not even just to get to the area. We don’t just rush in and start shooting people just because something happened. We go in, assess the situation, and then we adapt to it. And he just never would — I don’t know, maybe he just didn’t know what our capabilities really were. He just blatantly didn’t want us to ever do anything.
[Note: The Daily Beast reported in May 2013 that “Bob” received “one of the [CIA’s] highest intelligence medals.”]
RK: Tell us what that time was like from the moment when you guys got into the vehicles to get ready to go [from the CIA Annex to the State Department Compound which was under attack], waiting for Bob to give you the “go,” and what happened over the next 30 to 40 minutes.
JT: A lot of anger. A lot of us were getting extremely pissed off.
RK: What did Bob say to you?
JT: He told me directly, he just looked right at me when I got out of the car, “Hey, you need to stand down. You need to wait.” And that was it. It wasn’t, “You need to wait for this.” It was just, “You need to wait.” And from previous experiences, his “stand down” or even just “wait” meant “you ain’t gonna leave this compound.”
RK: Did he use the actual words “stand down” or did he just say “wait”?
JT: He used the words “stand down.”
RK: So do you believe that the delay caused by the CIA station chief probably cost the lives of Sean Smith and Chris Stevens?
JT: I strongly believe that if we had left immediately, they’d still be alive. They didn’t die of gunshot wounds or knife stabbing. They died of smoke inhalation. And that takes time. It’s not something that just happens in a split second. Their house was on fire. Every second counts. Firefighters know every second counts. So, yeah, it directly impacted their deaths.
MG: I wasn’t there at the time that the stand down order was given, but in any emergency situation, every second is critical. And how you use that time is critical. And to save those five people there and the 20-plus people at the Annex, the time had to be used in a very efficient manner. With the delay, I think we’re lucky that they all didn’t die.
RK: So Bob was a CIA guy. One thing I’m still trying to understand is why was there a relatively significant CIA presence in Benghazi at that time?
JT: They’re trying to gather information on terrorists. [Islamic radicals] were all over [the port city of] Derna [about 150 miles northeast of Benghazi]. Derna was pretty much overrun by [terrorists] months before Benghazi. So they’re out there collecting intel.Initially, they were out there trying to find the yellow cake [uranium] that Gaddafi had.
RK: Some people wonder whether the CIA was trying to send arms to Syria through Libya. Do you have any opinion about that?
JT: I’ve been there three trips and I never once even heard them talk about running AKs or anything. Yeah, they would try to find the shoulder-fired missiles, but they did that in just about every country, so [terrorists] couldn’t shoot down airliners. But for running AKs and stuff, I even went to the port with them and that never came up, and I was in a meeting there and they were just discussing the situation at the port. That’s all it was.
[Note: Another new book on Benghazi continues to assert that the State Department and Ambassador Stevens were involved in highly secret arms transfers, both within Libya (to keep large quantities of weapons out of the hands of the most radical militias) and from Libya to Turkey and then on to Syria.]
RK: Did this experience change how you think about government and bureaucracy?
MG: I was in the Marine Corps for 12 years. We don’t do the job that we do because of government or higher-ups in the chain of command. We do it because there’s a need to serve people and protect people. To me, it’s a calling. It’s just something I do. Like a firefighter who runs to the fire instead of away from it. We’re the same way.
RK: Does the government understand national security?
JT: This administration, I’d say no.
RK: I know what you’re going to say but I’m going to ask you anyway: What goes through your mind when someone calls you a hero?
JT: I’m no hero. I mean, this is something we’ve been trained to do. We all joined the military and we like doing it. We like protecting people, obviously.
MG: It seems to me that everybody should just be this way, be there to help people who can’t help themselves. If doing that… that’s just helping other people. That ain’t being a hero.
RK: How are you guys doing now? Are you happy? Do you miss that aspect of your life? Do you feel like that was just a chapter of your life and now you’re on to a new one, or do you feel as if you’re missing something fundamental?
JT: We’re always going to miss it. I mean, you’re working around people who think the same. The camaraderie that was there. I mean, God, I miss it every day. It was fun. I enjoyed it.
RK: So did you give it up mainly because you have kids?
JT: I’d probably say yes. That’s one of the main reasons. I mean, I went back. I did two trips. My twins are only two and a half. They weren’t even six months old when Benghazi happened. The first trip was kinda hard. The second trip was even harder. I just said, “That’s it.”
MG: I can’t work doing that anymore, at least not in that capacity, due to my injuries. It’s hard to say why… but I’d go back in a heartbeat. But I also am glad that I’m able to be home now because out of — I started contracting in 2004, so since 2004 I’ve probably been gone for two thirds of that time. So my two older kids, one who’s 18 and one who’s 13, I’ve missed a lot of their growing up. So it’s really nice to be home but there’s always that — like we said — camaraderie, being around people who think like you and can understand why you think the way you do and why you look at things the way you do. You, having grown up on a military base, probably understand that a little more than most. But the civilian population doesn’t think like we do.
JT: Plus it’s a job where you get to take out terrorists. I mean, you’re taking out the bad guy. It’s not as if you’re sitting around not accomplishing anything. It’s a very rewarding job even though the public doesn’t get to know about it.
RK: Last question for you: What question should you be asked that people are missing and not asking you?
MG: The thing that should be asked is, “Why did we write the book?” And the answer to that is because it’s the story that hasn’t been told. The media has talked about the beginning and what should have been done and they’ve talked about all the things that happened since and why people did what they did. But nobody’s asked the question of what happened during those 13 hours. Not because we care about some political thing — but because we want people to know what happened on the ground. And to honor Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty and the sacrifices they made to try to save Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. And to honor them, too. Because they were serving their country, in a different way than we did, but they were serving their country and they died doing it. You know, no one has honored them the way they should be honored, all four of them who died.
Published today, 13 Hours may indeed set the record straight on what really happened during a night which has itself become a political RPG and could threaten the presidential aspirations of the next would-be President Clinton, whose infamous “what difference at this point does it make?” should be disqualifying, even if her failure to protect Ambassador Stevens were somehow overlooked.
More importantly, 13 Hours is also an incredible, harrowing, engrossing story of American warriors demonstrating heroism and bravery at a level that most of us can barely imagine — fighting against a much larger, well-armed radical militia force and saving the lives of many despite cowardice, cynicism, and incompetence all around them.