By Spencer S. Hsu
A CIA witness testified Tuesday that the body of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was returned after the September 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, only after he overheard Libyan militia members discussing whether to tell Americans about a dead compatriot at a hospital.
Appearing under false names and in wigs or a mustache because their identities remain classified, two active CIA employees gave gripping accounts at the trial of the accused mastermind of the attacks about the chaotic, at times haphazard U.S. response to the bloody assault on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, that killed Stevens and three other Americans at a U.S. special diplomatic mission and nearby CIA Annex.
The two witnesses said they used $30,000 in cash to arrange a one-hour, midnight flight for six U.S. security operatives to go from Tripoli to reinforce Benghazi in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. There, they waited — futilely — for an armed escort of Libyan special forces personnel who were supposed to take them from the Benghazi airport to the CIA annex. In the end, one testified, he offered $1,000 to Libyan ambulance drivers for a litter to carry Stevens’s body with a “last iota of dignity” aboard a Libyan Air Force C-130 aircraft evacuating the American dead and surviving security officers.
The drivers offered the litter — and declined to accept payment for the courtesy.
A plaque as seen at the State Department in May 2013 with the recently added names of Benghazi victims Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Ty Woods. (Susan Walsh/AP)
The testimony by “Alexander Charles” and “Roy Edwards,” an Arabic-speaking CIA operations support manager and the CIA’s team leader for security in Libya, respectively, continued several days of emotionally powerful appearances by witnesses put on by federal prosecutors in Washington with the U.S. attorney’s office of the District.
The testimony in the case has yet to lay out for jurors the strong evidence prosecutors have asserted in filings and in opening statements that they have tying Ahmed Abu Khattala, 46, to the attacks.
Abu Khattala is a Libyan national who led a brigade of the Ansar al-Sharia militia that the United States designated a terrorist organization and holds responsible for the Benghazi attacks. He was captured in a June 2014 raid by U.S. Special Operations forces and faces life in prison if convicted in a trial that began Oct. 2.
Abu Khattala has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges including conspiracy to support terrorism, murder, attempted murder and damaging U.S. facilities.The courtroom was closed for security reasons during the CIA officers’ testimony Tuesday, and images from the witness stand were blacked out on video streamed to an observation room for journalists. Live audio of their testimony was streamed into ancillary rooms where journalists and other observers could listen.
Charles and Edwards, disguised in what the judge called light disguises, testified that U.S. forces on the ground could scarcely tell friend from foe among rival militia groups, and were delayed by conflicting aims of keeping a low profile while still moving in force to avoid being ambushed and needing rescuing themselves.
After the CIA’s chief of station in Tripoli tried in vain to get help from the Libyan ministries of defense and interior and the intelligence service for a flight to Benghazi after the attack began at 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, Charles reached out to a Libyan charter flight provider he had met earlier that same day.
Edwards, who worked for the CIA’s secret contract security force called the Global Response Staff, said the team of four GRS officers, Charles, and two U.S. military operatives arrived at the Benghazi airport before 1 a.m., shortly after the assault on the annex had started, but was stranded because the Libyan military unit they expected to be waiting to drive them to the annex did not show, triggering hours of negotiations and phone calls.
“Obviously nothing worked, because we were on the ground for approximately three hours,” said Charles, who said he worked 30 years with the U.S. government or with the CIA.
Edwards said the CIA team was directed to retrieve a wounded Westerner reportedly at a Benghazi hospital who possibly could be Stevens.
Later, however, the team received a report that the person was dead, and the CIA station chief in Tripoli told the team to move on the annex, which had already repelled two ground attacks, Edwards testified.
A leader of a Benghazi-based militia at the airport had refused to take the CIA team members to the hospital, possibly for their own safety, but agreed to take them to the annex, Edwards told jurors.
Within minutes of arriving at the annex, about 5 a.m., “All hell broke loose,” Charles said.
Edwards had asked a key member from Tripoli, a former Navy SEAL commando and medic named Glen “Bub” A. Doherty, to assist other GRS officers on watch on the roof. Doherty wanted to join a GRS friend there, his SEAL school classmate Tyrone S. Woods, Charles said.
Suddenly, a mortar round exploded nearby. Another landed closer, then several hit the roof.
Voice breaking with emotion, Edwards said he raced to the roof, but wearing night-vision goggles, he could not recognize one of the victims until a colleague said, “Bub is dead. Move to other medic.”
The other, Woods, was alive, Edwards testified, but as Edwards pulled him to a ladder to get off the roof, “he expired in that time.” GRS officer Mark Geist and State Department security agent David Ubben were wounded.
Expecting a “final assault to wipe us out,” Edwards said, the Americans evacuated to the airport.
Fate then seemingly stepped in, according to an account from Charles, who said he decided to walk near Libyan revolutionary militiamen guarding them at the airport.
“I don’t know why, maybe it was divine intervention,” Charles said, “I heard two Libyans talking to each other. They said, ‘Should we tell them about this dead American at the hospital?’ ”
Charles said he offered all the money in his backpack for the body, to which the men’s commander said, “ ‘I don’t want your money.’ He said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ About 15 minutes later, the body of the ambassador was delivered to the airport.”
A 2012 State Department review previously described without elaboration several CIA efforts in Tripoli and Benghazi to arrange transportation of the remains of Stevens, a process the House Intelligence Committee said was coordinated by the Libyan government with the State Department.
The GRS officers waited for evacuation by the Libyan C-130 cargo transport plane — when it came it was so decrepit that “I really felt that was how I was going to die,” Edwards testified — and they loaded the dead, without blankets to cover Woods and Doherty, Charles said.
During the flight, Charles said that although Woods was dead, blood was still draining from his wounds. “I remember it made a stream of blood from the bodies all the way to the ramp of the plane.”
Spencer S. Hsu – Reporter,Washington, D.C.