The former commander of special operations in Northern Africa told a closed-door briefing today that he was largely detached from events the night of the Benghazi attack as he was traveling at the time.

The testimony of Col. George H. Bristol, USMC, Former Commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, Marine Corps Forces Special  Operations Command Africa, had been eagerly anticipated by members of Congress. Originally, lawmakers had been told by the Defense Department that he had retired — the actual date is Aug. 1, an “administrative error” according to the Pentagon — and that they didn’t have his forwarding contact information. Bristol lives in Woodbridge, Va., between the Pentagon and Quantico.

“His responsibilities in that role were primarily to contribute to counterterrorism efforts through training and assisting military forces of other countries. Colonel Bristol clarified orders given to personnel on the ground responding to the attack. Colonel Bristol also elaborated on his activities as part of the chain of command during and following the attack.  During the attack, Colonel Bristol was traveling in Africa. Unreliable communications prohibited him from participating in the attack response beyond an initial conversation with LTG Gibson and Rear Admiral Losey,” the House Armed Services Committee said in a readout of the hearing.

“Col Bristol confirmed to the committee that, in his role as Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara Commander, he gave LTC Gibson initial freedom of action to make decisions in response to the unfolding situation in Benghazi.  Bristol elaborated that Gibson’s orders changed over time, as conditions on the ground evolved. LTC Gibson previously testified to the committee that, contrary to some reports, he was at no point ordered to ‘stand down’ but rather to remain in Tripoli to defend American embassy there in anticipation of possible additional attacks and to assist the survivors as they returned from Benghazi. Colonel Bristol confirmed this account of events.”

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) also asked the Defense Department if any personnel had been required to sign non-disclosure agreements after the Benghazi attacks.

“The Department has not requested nor required relevant personnel to sign any such agreements since the attacks,” the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs responded.