A man looks at documents at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 12 after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. (Ibrahim Alaguri / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon provided more details Friday of the military response to the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as questions continue to swirl ahead of the presidential election about the government's response to the attack, detailing the troops that were dispatched to the region, even though most arrived after the fighting was over.
Although two teams of special operations forces were deployed from central Europe and the United States, the attack, which began after 9 p.m. local time and ended by 6 a.m., was over before they arrived at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, across the Mediterranean from Libya.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said that after the attack began, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly met with his senior military advisers, including the top U.S. commander for Africa Command who was in Washington for meetings. Little said that within a few hours Panetta had ordered units to move to Libya.
"The entire U.S. government was operating from a cold start," Little said.
He said the military units were prepared to respond to any number of contingencies, including a potential hostage situation.
The military also immediately moved an unarmed Predator surveillance drone to Benghazi airspace to provide real-time intelligence on the situation for the CIA officers on the ground who were fighting the militants.
The Pentagon comments came a day after senior U.S. intelligence officials detailed the CIA's rescue efforts, striking back at allegations they failed to respond quickly or efficiently against the deadly attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Two of those Americans were ex-Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty, who initially were identified publicly as State Department contractors. But on Thursday, the intelligence officials said they were CIA contractors. Previously the agency had asked The Associated Press and other news organizations to avoid linking the men to the CIA because the officials claimed that doing so would endanger the lives of other security contractors working for other agencies around the world.
U.S. officials are using the details to rebut some news reports that said the CIA told its personnel to "stand down" rather than go to the consulate to help repel the attackers. Fox News reported that when CIA officers at the annex called higher-ups to tell them the consulate was under fire, they were twice told to "stand down." The CIA publicly denied the report, laying out a timeline that showed CIA security officers left their annex and headed to the consulate less than 25 minutes after receiving the first call for help.
The consulate attack has become a political issue in Washington, with Republicans questioning the security at the consulate, the intelligence on militant groups in North Africa and the Obama administration's response in the days after the attack. Republicans also have questioned whether enough military and other support was requested and received.
The issue popped up during President Barack Obama's campaign swing through Ohio on Friday, as a small group of protesters holding signs about Libya greeted him at Springfield High School. One sign read "We won't stand down. Tell us the truth about Benghazi"
The intelligence officials told reporters Thursday that when the CIA annex received a call about the assault, about a half dozen members of a CIA security team tried to get heavy weapons and other assistance from the Libyans. But when the Libyans failed to respond, the security team, which routinely carries small arms, went ahead with the rescue attempt. At no point was the team told to wait, the officials said.
Instead, they said the often outmanned and outgunned team members made all the key decisions on the ground, with no second-guessing from senior officials monitoring the situation from afar.
The officials insisted on anonymity to discuss a CIA operation, as they routinely do. The anonymity was a condition of discussion even on a topic that has become highly politicized days before the presidential election.
On Thursday, intelligence officials said they had early information that the attackers had ties to al-Qaida-linked groups but did not make it public immediately because it was based on classified intelligence. And they said the early public comments about the attack and its genesis were cautious and limited, as they routinely are in such incidents.
They added that while intelligence officials indicated early on that extremists were involved in the assault, only later were officials able to confirm that the attack was not generated by a protest over the film.
Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Republicans insist that if the Obama administration didn't know enough about the attack to discuss it clearly in the days that followed, it should have. They also say the response to the attack has been too muted to send a deterrent message to terrorists.
The officials' description Thursday of the attack provided details about a second CIA security team in Tripoli that quickly chartered a plane and flew to Benghazi but got stuck at the airport. By then, however, the first team had gotten the State Department staff out of the consulate and back to the CIA annex.
While the U.S. military was at a heightened state of alert because of 9/11, there were no American forces poised and ready to move immediately into Benghazi when the attack began.
The Pentagon would not send forces or aircraft into Libya — a sovereign nation — without a request from the State Department and the knowledge or consent of the host country. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the information coming in was too jumbled to risk U.S. troops.
AP National Security writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.