Pentagon spokesman George Little told a press briefing a small military support mission had accompanied the FBI personnel, providing “logistic and security support,” including transportation, in consultation with the Libyan authorities.
He repeatedly declined to get into specifics about the mission, saying “we may need to replicate it in the future, and I wouldn’t want to tip off the wrong people.”
Little confirmed that the military and FBI personnel were in Benghazi for “a number of hours” before leaving the city where U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during an armed assault on September 11.
Asked about the three-week delay, he deferred to the FBI and State Department – both of which, he said, “have been anxious to move this process along, to move the investigation forward.”
Pressed on the issue, Little challenged any notion that the government response has been sluggish.
“The U.S. government has been aggressively looking into precisely what happened since September the 11th,” he said. “We’ve not been sitting around waiting, you know, for information to come to us. We’ve been actively chasing leads in various ways. The intelligence community, the State Department, FBI, the full range of capabilities of this government have been used to try to determine what happened in this tragic incident.
“So, I wouldn’t read too much into time delays at this stage. The important thing is that the FBI team has been working in Libya and now has been on the ground in Benghazi.”
Given the deaths of the four Americans, he said, “we think it’s only prudent to take measures to protect our personnel who may be investigating what happened there. That's the bottom line.”
On Tuesday two Republican lawmakers in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listed a string of attacks and threats in Benghazi in recent months, and claimed that the administration had turned down repeated requests from the U.S. mission in Libya for more security.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Clinton to provide details of those requests, among other information.
Clinton in response pledged to work cooperatively with Congress and get to the bottom of the affair, telling reporters Wednesday “we will not rest until we answer those questions and until we track down the terrorists who killed our people.”
An Accountability Review Board (ARB) has been set up under the retired former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, to investigate. It held its first meeting Thursday.
Little said Thursday that the Pentagon – in a probe “not formally linked” to the ARB process – was carrying out its own internal assessment into its role in evaluating security in Libya in the recent past.
“It’s the responsible thing to do in a situation like this, to see if we played any role at some point in assessing the conditions on the ground in Libya,” he said.
“I would call it an internal look at anything that we may have done with respect to security in Libya,” Little added. “We announced a number of months ago that we had U.S. military service members on the ground in Libya to provide security support at the embassy in Tripoli. And we’re going to take a look at what, if any, role we had to play in assessing security there and elsewhere in the country.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday she had no information to relay on the FBI mission in Libya.
Attorney General Eric Holder, under whose department the FBI falls, told reporters in Washington he was satisfied with progress made in the probe thus far.
“You should not assume that all that we could do or have been doing is restricted solely to Benghazi,” he said. “There are a variety of other places – in country and outside the country – where relevant things could be done and have been done.”
“This is a matter that’s been under active investigation almost since the time of the incident, and I’m satisfied with the progress that we have made,” Holder added.
The Obama administration initially insisted that the attack in Benghazi was part of a “spontaneous” demonstration by Muslims protesting an online video clip denigrating Mohammed. Later officials conceded that it was a terrorist attack, possibly linked to al-Qaeda.
The Benghazi incident occurred on the same day as protests erupted in Cairo over the Mohammed video, but also on the 11th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attack on America. It also took place just one day after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement urging Libyans to avenge the killing in a U.S. drone strike last June of his Libyan-born deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Zawahiri appealed to Libyans to attack Americans, saying that al-Libi’s “blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the Crusaders.”