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Despite Pentagon claims, Marine colonel sought in Benghazi investigation not yet retired

Jul. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
AFRICOM change of command
Col. George Bristol speaks during the April 2012 ceremony in which he took command of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Although the Pentagon has claimed Bristol is now retired, that is not true. Some lawmakers want to question Bristol about the U.S. response to the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Eric Steen/Army)
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When insurgents attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, last fall, Col. George Bristol held a key post in the region. As commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, he was in a position to know what options the U.S. had to protect Americans under fire.

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the Sept. 11 attacks, sparking national outcry and a congressional investigation examining the lack of protection. Several U.S. officials have testified before Congress since — but not Bristol, a salty Marine whose task force was responsible for special operations in northern and western Africa.

Defense Department officials have told members of Congress that Bristol cannot be forced to testify because he retired after stepping down during a March change of command ceremony, according to several media reports. The Pentagon reinforced that point of view to Marine Corps Times on Tuesday.

“Col. Bristol was not invited by Congress to testify before he retired,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “The DoD has cooperated fully with Congress and the Accountability Review Board since the beginning of this investigation, and we will continue to do so.”

That isn’t the case, however. While Bristol is preparing for retirement, he is on active duty through the end of July, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine spokeswoman, on Wednesday. He will be placed on the inactive list on Aug. 1, she said. That contradicts statements that Pentagon officials have issued to both Congress and the media.

Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they were looking into the case. The situation will likely frustrate congressional critics, primarily Republicans, who say the Obama administration has not been truthful about the Benghazi attack and the U.S. response to it. They have repeatedly said the White House is guilty of a cover-up, despite an independent report that blamed the State Department for inadequate security at the compound in Benghazi.

Marine Corps Times sought comment Wednesday from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, both of whom have sought Pentagon assistance in finding Bristol. Neither office had an immediate response. In a CBS News report earlier this month, however, Chaffetz questioned why the Pentagon couldn’t find Bristol.

“They say he’s retired and they can’t reach out to him,” Chaffetz said. “That’s hogwash.”

Bristol’s task force was responsible for special operations in 12 countries, including operations to counter violent extremist organizations, according to his profile on the website LinkedIn. During his change of command ceremony in March, he said “an evil” has taken hold in Africa, and “it is on us to stomp it out,” according to a Stars and Stripes report.

“Africa is not the next ridgeline,” Bristol told Stars and Stripes. “It is where the enemy is going now. And we are going to do something about it.”

Bristol previously served from August 2010 to March 2012 as the assistant chief of staff at Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, the Corps’ special operations component, according to LinkedIn. Prior to that, he served from August 2009 to July 2010 as the special operations officer in charge in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Several recent attempts by Marine Corps Times to reach him have been unsuccessful.

In June, the former commander of a four-man special operations unit in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, denied that he was told to stand down the night of the the two attacks in Benghazi. Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson told a House Armed Services Committee panel that his commanders told him to remain in Tripoli to defend Americans there in the event of additional attacks, and to help survivors being evacuated from Benghazi.

“Contrary to news reports, Gibson was not ordered to ‘stand down’ by higher command authorities in response to his understandable desire to lead a group of three other special forces soldiers to Benghazi,” the Republican-led committee said in a summary of its classified briefing.

Nevertheless, lawmakers have continues to question why the military couldn’t get aircraft to Benghazi in time to thwart the second of two attacks that night, after the first one killed Stevens. Gibson told the House that if he had left Tripoli, Americans in the Libyan capital would have been without protection, according to a summary released by the HASC’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.

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