WASHINGTON (CN) – Shielding their identities with light disguises, CIA agents testified behind closed doors Tuesday about a fatal 2012 mortar attack on their facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Explosions rocked the CIA annex on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, just hours after an attack on the nearby diplomatic compound killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens and Foreign Service officer Sean Smith.
The second week of trial for the accused ringleader of both clashes, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, began Tuesday with witness testimony from an intelligence officer and the team lead of the CIA’s global response staff.
Neither man’s face was visible in the media room of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where their testimony was broadcast this morning via closed-circuit cameras. A court official described the men as wearing light disguises, such as fake mustaches and wigs.
The officer witness, who testified under the pseudonym Alexander Charles, said he had been in Tripoli when reports emerged at around 10 p.m. of an attack on the consulate.
Finding and bringing home Ambassador Stevens was the CIA’s main objective at that point, Charles said, but first they had to travel 640 miles to Benghazi.
“How the heck are we going to get to Benghazi,” Charles recalled his supervisor saying.
Also testifying via pseudonym, team lead Roy Edwards noted that efforts to secure air transport initially failed, and that an overland trip from Tripoli would take between 18 and 20 hours.
An opportunity emerged, however, when Charles told his supervisor about the charter company he happened to have met with earlier that day. “Make it happen,” Charles said his supervisor told him.
Edwards recalled a supervisor handing him a bag with $30,000 in cash for the flight.
After a roughly an hour in the air, the seven-man team landed in Benghazi at around 1 a.m.
The witness’s accounts diverge here, with Edwards saying no Libyan vehicles were parked on the tarmac waiting for them, and Charles describing chaos.
Charles said there were plenty of people who wanted to help, but without the proper vehicles to transport them.
Edwards testified that two Department of Defense operators in the rescue party reached out at this point to the Libyan special forces. After several tries, the Libyans allegedly stopped answering.
“It was apparent they weren’t coming,” Edwards testified.
As the hours ticked past with no transport, Edwards said he received news that the ambassador was likely dead. Rather than heading straight to a nearby hospital as originally planned, the team set its sights on the CIA annex.
It was this new destination that sparked an offer of transportation from the commander of the Libyan militia, and Edwards said the team arrived at the CIA annex around 5 a.m.
From there they made plans for the Libyan commander to take “nonessentials” to the airport.
“Basically, if you didn’t carry a gun you were leaving,” he said.
Finding Ambassador Stevens remained the top priority.
“He’s the national asset,” Edwards testified. “He is basically America.”
Charles entered a secure area known as a SCIF once he reached the annex, but former Navy SEAL Glen Doherty went up to the roof to see his colleague Tyrone Woods.
“A few minutes later,” Charles said, “all hell broke loose.”
As they took heavy fire from the side of the annex known as “Zombie Land,” Edwards said he took cover at the front of the main building.
There was a loud explosion, then a pause, he said. Then a second explosion, this time closer.
Charles recalled a third explosion while Edwards described a succession of rapid impacts to the building.
“It’s a pretty horrifying thing,” Edwards said. “We were taking direct hits. And it was bad.”
Charles said the walls began to crumble. Big blocks of cement rained down, along with water from broken pipes. “You could feel the whole ground shaking,” Charles said.
Khatallah’s defense team objected when Charles testified about his belief that the attackers were waiting for them and had some military training. U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper struck that testimony from the record.
When the attack subsided, Edwards said he headed to the roof with his two DOD colleagues. Doherty, who had been a U.S. security contractor, was already dead.
Woods was still alive, but “he was in a bad way,” Edwards said.
The team leader recalled grabbing Woods by his pants and dragging him 10-15 meters to a ladder to get him off the roof. By then, he had died.
Meanwhile, State Department security official David Ubben, also on the roof, was bleeding out badly. Edwards described seeing his leg dangling.
Recalling the bone he saw protruding from Ubben’s leg when he was brought down from the roof, Charles said he thought “maybe we need to amputate his leg to save his life.”
They gave him morphine, Charles said, but “he was still screaming.”
“I can never forget that scream,” Charles added.
Ubben did survive, though. “We put his leg together in a fiberglass cast and we wrapped it with duck tape,” Charles said.
With Ambassador Stevens still unaccounted for, Edwards recalled wanting to stay. After assessing their lack of medics, shooters and security personnel, however, Edwards said he feared staying would invite another attack. So the team destroyed classified evidence and packed up what they couldn’t dispose of.
They loaded the injured into vehicles, along with the bodies of Woods, Doherty and Sean Smith, one of the consulate victims who had been brought over earlier that night when the compound was evacuated.
Having still not located Ambassador Stevens, the team put nonessential personnel back on the chartered flight, while a Libyan C130 was deployed to pick up the others.
This plane was in such terrible shape, Edwards said, he thought he might die on it.
Charles, who speaks and understands Arabic, credited divine intervention with what happened next.
“Should we tell him about the dead American at the hospital?” Charles said he overheard from the group of Libyan fighters who had gathered at the airport to protect the Americans.
Though the men’s commander initially told Charles that the body was not Stevens, he said he would see what he could do after declining to take money from Charles.
Fifteen minutes later, Charles said, an ambulance drove onto the tarmac with the ambassador in a body bag on an orange gurney. Charles said he unzipped the bag to positively identify him.
Charles remembered asking the ambulance driver to keep the gurney, offering him $1,000 for it to preserve the ambassador’s dignity.
Edwards remembers it differently. He said he was asked to hop in a truck to retrieve the ambassador’s body, but declined because they were “combat ineffective at that point” and wouldn’t be able to fend off an attack.
While standing on the tarmac waiting for the C130, Charles’ wife called and asked him where he was. He told her he was in Benghazi and she said they would talk later.
“This is where, to me, I realized how lucky I was to be alive,” Charles said.