Kris Tanto"Paronto (left) and executive producer Scott Gardenhour on the set of '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'. (Christian Black/Paramount Pictures)
A preview by Benghazi security officer Kris “Tanto” Paronto of 13 Hours, the block-buster Michael Bay film that premieres on Thursday, raises dramatic new questions about the refusal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to authorize a military rescue of the besieged U.S. diplomatic facility and the nearby CIA Annex on Sept 11-12, 2012.
In a presentation at a conference organized by the Maryland Citizen Action Network last weekend, Paronto revealed that two AC-130H “Spectre” gunships were “on call” that night, both within range of Benghazi.
One of them was a six-hour flight away, co-located with a U.S. special operations team in Djibouti.
The other was at Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily. “That’s a 45-minute flight,” Paronto said.
The Spectre gunship with its 25mm rapid-fire gatling guns, its 40 mm precision Bofors gun, and its 105mm canon is “good in urban warfare because you have little collateral damage,” Paronto explained.
In fact, it was just what the beleaguered security team needed. They could see the jihadis advancing on the Annex compound throughout the night and lit them up with lasers, which the airborne crew could have used for precision targeting purposes. On-line videos of the Spectre gunship in operation show that it can walk its cannons up narrow streets, killing fighters while leaving the surrounding buildings intact and people inside them unharmed.
“I asked for the Spectre and ISR [an armed Predator drone] at 9:37 pm,” Paronto said, certain that the attacks actually started at 9:32 pm local time, not 9:42 pm as previously reported. “At midnight, they told us they were still working on getting us that Spectre gunship. Not that it was not available, but that they were still working on it.”
And there were more forces immediately available for a rescue effort, in particular, the European Command (EUCOM) Commander’s In-Extremis Force, which was then on a counter-terrorism training mission in Croatia, a 3 hour flight from Benghazi.
Paronto knew people in that unit, and remembers calling them after he and his security team got back to the CIA Annex from the diplomatic compound, where they had just rescued the surviving U.S. personnel. “They were loading their gear into their aircraft and ready to go,” he recalled.
Later, his friends in the unit told him they had been shut down sometime after midnight.
All evidence now points to a specific stand-down order issued by Secretary Clinton, since the Libyan facilities came under her direct authority. Without a specific request for assistance from the State Department, the Pentagon was powerless to act.
Last month, the State Department released a critical email, sent at 7:09 pm Washington time (1:09 am Benghazi time) from Jeremy Bash, a top aide to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, informing Mrs. Clinton’s office of various military assets that were “spinning up as we speak” to deploy to Benghazi.
Among those assets were C-110 in Croatia, two U.S. Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) platoons based in Rota, Spain, the Spectre gunships, armed Predator drones, and possibly elements of Marine Expeditionary Units in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
In preparation for deploying C-110 directly to Benghazi from Croatia, General Carter Ham, commander-in-chief of Africa Command (AFRICOM), issued orders transferring authority for C-110 to him from European Command (EUCOM).
General Ham was doing what any smart U.S. military officer would have done, by laying the ground work for a formal order he expected to come down an hour or two later.
“Assuming Principals agree to deploy these elements, we will ask State to secure the approval from host nation,”Bash wrote. “Please advise how you wish to convey that approval to us.”
When Bash sent that email, Paronto and his team-mates had just fought off an assault on the Annex by twenty or more well-armed jihadis. They would continue to fight throughout the night, as larger and increasingly brazen groups of jihadis gathered in dark areas beyond the Annex the security officers referred to as “Zombiland.”
They certainly could have used the support from the Spectre gunship, or the arrival of forty or so well-armed Special Operations combat specialists from C-110.
To date, the State Department has not released any reply from Mrs. Clinton’s office to Bash’s 7:09 PM request. However, we know from the testimony of the top U.S. diplomat in Tripoli at the time, Greg Hicks, that the State Department never requested country clearance from Libya for any U.S. forces that night.
And when the orders finally went out from Panetta’s office an hour later, they included a retransfer of C-110 from AFRICOM back to EUCOM, along with orders for the unit to move to Sigonella the next day and hold in place, instead of flying to Benghazi.
In other words, because Mrs. Clinton refused to authorize those forces to deploy into Libya to assist State Department personnel and State Department facilities, Panetta had no other choice but to put them on hold.
“The State Department was concerned that an overt U.S. military presence in Libya could topple the government,” a senior AFRICOM commander involved in that night’s events told me. “They were in denial. They wanted a narrative that al Qaeda was on the run. Instead, four Americans died.”
With the release of the Bash email and 13 Hours, Mrs. Clinton’s cover has been blown.
I also asked Paronto last weekend if he had heard reports of an Iranian Quds Force presence in Benghazi, as I had been hearing from numerous U.S. military intelligence sources, including senior AFRICOM commanders.
“Everyone knew the Iranians were there,” he replied. “Especially once the Red Cross [Red Crescent] team from Iran was ‘kidnapped’ in Benghazi [on July 31] by Ansar al-Sharia, we knew about them and were tracking them.”
As I reported in Dark Forces: the Truth About What Happened in Benghazi, U.S. military and civilian intelligence agencies produced between 50 to 60 reports on the Iranian presence in Benghazi and Derna in 2012, and Iran’s deep involvement with Ansar al-Sharia, the group that claimed responsibility for the Benghazi attacks. Multiple FOIA requests seeking copies of these reports from the National Director of Intelligence and from AFRICOM have gone without response.
It’s time to remove the wraps of secrecy from those reports as well, so the American public can finally learn the truth about who plotted, organized and paid for the Benghazi attacks.
Kenneth Timmerman is the New York Times best-selling author of "Dark Forces: the Truth About What Happened in Benghazi," and other books.