Saturday on C-SPAN’s Book TV, CIA Benghazi annex security team members Kris Paronto and Mark Geist answered questions about a report released Friday by the House Intelligence Committee on the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The two former CIA contractors pushed back forcefully against parts of the the committee’s conclusions about the night that Ambassador Chris Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in Benghazi.
The report by the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), chaired by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, concluded that “the CIA ensured sufficient security for CIA facilities in Benghazi” and that “appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night.” The committee “found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support.” The report, according to the House Intelligence Committee, is meant to serve as the “definitive House statement on the Intelligence Community’s activities before, during, and after the tragic events that caused the deaths of four brave Americans” so that the American public can separate “facts from the swirl of rumors and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Kris “Tanto” Paronto, co-author of the book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, reacted to the report on Twitter Friday night and Saturday morning, prior to the C-SPAN interview:
During the Book TV interview, Paronto and Mark “Oz” Geist, who also co-wrote the book (along with Mark Teigen, who attended the interview but did not appear on camera), explained that it took them over an hour to get to the consulate from the time they heard about the attack. Asked why it took so long for them to reach the scene Paronto said, “That’s the million dollar question.”
Paronto stood by the claim made in the book that they were ordered to stand down, a claim that was disputed in this week’s House Intelligence Committee report. “We were told to stand down. We were delayed for approximately 27 minutes on our compound,” he said. “We do not know, as far as outside of our chain of command outside Libya, where that came from. We know that the stand down orders and the waits and the delays came from Libya. Came from chief of station, chief of base. Whether it came from anybody higher, we don’t answer that. We don’t know. And we’d like to know, but we have no idea.”
A caller from Sanford, Florida, accused the men of lying about the Obama administration to boost book sales, saying that House Intelligence Committee report proved they were not telling the truth.
“Ma’am,” Paronto said, “during the House intel subcommittee I looked at Mike Rogers in the eyes and I said, ‘If we would have not been delayed — which, we were delayed three times — that we would have saved the ambassador’s life and Sean Smith’s life.'” He added, “Why he came out with the report, I don’t know what to tell you on that. You’re going to have to ask him. What we said in the book is what happened on the ground and that is the truth.”
He insisted to another caller that they were the ones who knew the truth about what happened on the ground that night. “Whether [the House subcommittee] wanted to believe us or not, that’s up to them,” he said. “But there were no other people on the ground but us that night and our stories haven’t changed. They haven’t wavered. So if the subcommittee or whoever else wants to come out and say things that doesn’t represent the book, you know, have them on the show and ask them.”
“All we’re going to do is keep telling what actually happened that night,” Paronto told the caller.
Geist said that while the hearings that have taken place to date have been very useful, the investigation is far from complete and more must be done to determine what happened “so we don’t repeat” what happened. “The only way to do that is to kick that horse until it’s down and we’ve still gotta do that because we haven’t reached the full complexity because not everybody that was on the ground there has been talked to.”
Book TV host Peter Slen asked Paronto and Geist what they would have done differently the night of the attack in Benghazi if given the opportunity.
Paronto said he would have disobeyed orders earlier and left for the consulate. “If I had control of the supporting elements or had the ability to contact them, the supporting elements would have been there sooner,” he said. But as far as the tactical movements of his team, he said he believes they did everything correctly from a military perspective. “That’s why we were able to save lives and we were able to fight off an extremely large force,” Paronto said. “The mistakes that we made on our end — and I do take responsibility, whether people say I should or not — us not leaving early enough and us not being able to save the ambassador’s life. I take that personally.” He repeated that not leaving soon enough — not disobeying the stand-down order — was their biggest mistake. “I don’t know if everyone else agrees with that. It keeps me up at night.”
Geist agreed. “Whether it was not our job to protect the ambassador, he’s an American serving in an area of operations that we — when we’re there we feel that we’re responsible, probably for any other American that’s there,” he said. “And the fact that we couldn’t get over there quick enough, I think was probably one of the biggest things.”
Geist added that the HPSCI report said that the chief at the base was relying on Libyans to asses the tactical situation, a decision with which he disagreed. “Well, I’m not going to depend, personally, I’m not going to depend on a Libyan or a third country national or somebody else to do that.” He said that he preferred to rely on highly trusted Americans, noting that between the six security contractors involved in Benghazi, they had over 100 years of experience in war zones around the world. “Tyrone Woods, he was with the most elite of military forces — with the SEALS — a number of different teams. He had retired from that. He had been an instructor at BUD/S,” he said. “Tanto with his experience, John (Tiegen) with his — all of us. I mean, if you have a guard dog are you going to let the guard dog do his job or are you going to hold him back and tell him he can’t?”
Geist also thinks U.S. assets around the world should be better protected. He said the U.S. should ensure that any facility we have overseas has the assets available to protect itself “because you’re always going to have that unforeseen.” In addition, he said, there should always be a response team or plan in place. “The best thing to do to keep Americans alive overseas is make sure you have a strong presence and you’re putting up that bigger defense and you don’t look like the victim or look like the person that’s going to go down without a fight.”
Paronto agreed that more should have been done to protect the consulate in Benghazi and that more should be done going forward to protect U.S. assets overseas. “You either defend your keep and you make sure you have it properly defended or you pull up chops and you leave,” he said. “And we were kind of stuck in the middle. It was halfway. You can’t do that. You either show the big force or you’ve gotta leave. If we’re not going to fully secure our facilities overseas like they should have been, then we probably shouldn’t have been there.”
A caller from New Jersey asked the men how Hillary Clinton’s “what difference does it make” statement during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony made them feel.
“Angry,” Geist said. “No matter what context you put that statement in from somebody at that level within politics, it always makes a difference. If you don’t find out the truth about what happened you can’t evaluate what you did right and wrong and it angered me very much.”
“It angered me as well,” said Paronto. “People died. A UN ambassador at a high level and then our friends died. It is a huge difference when Americans die on foreign soil, so context or not, it was still an incorrect statement and it still makes me angry today hearing that.”
He said he thinks he speaks for the rest of the team when he says it makes them more determined to get the real story out about the night of the attack “and not be swayed or bullied to not continue to put the truth out there.” He said that every time he hears Clinton’s statement it makes him want to dig his heels in so everyone knows that “what happened on that night matters.”
“You’re in charge. You’re a leader. You don’t say that about military personnel when they die, especially the way they died, or when you lack support, when we didn’t have the support we needed over there,” Paronto said.
Asked by a caller what they’re doing now Paronto said, “We’ve had to resign. It kills us. I miss the job immensely.”
He and Geist both defended their decision to write the book and tell their story, insisting it was not for financial gain.
“I have my own business on the side. I don’t need the book selling money,” Paronto said. “We didn’t do this to sell a book. We did it to tell the truth. We also deployed for a year after that waiting for the administration or somebody to come forward and tell the truth, which they didn’t and we made a decision as a team to come forward and tell the truth.”
Geist added, “Had we stayed working, we would be able to make more working than we would selling this book. We did it to honor the four guys that died there because they weren’t being honored.”
After the interview Paronto made some even stronger statements on Twitter, letting everyone know that the story about what happened in Benghazi that night will not die with the House Select Committee report.