Col. George Bristol, commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara on the night of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, testified before the House Armed Services Committee in a close-door session on Tuesday. (Eric Steen / Army)
A retiring Marine colonel who commanded a special operations unit in Africa during the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, told Congress on Wednesday that an elite four-man team under his command was kept in the Libyan capital that night to prevent attacks there.
Col. George Bristol’s statement corroborates previous testimony by his subordinate officer, Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson. Gibson told the House Armed Services Committee in June that, contrary to previous media reports, he was not ordered to “stand down” by higher headquarters in response to the Benghazi attacks. Rather, Gibson’s team was told to stay in the city of Tripoli to defend Americans there in the event of additional attacks and to help survivors being evacuated from Benghazi, Bristol said.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in two separate attacks several hours apart on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, prompting international uproar and a congressional investigation that continues nearly a year later.
The classified briefing was not opened to the public, but the armed services committee released a 344-word statement about it on Wednesday.
Bristol served last year as commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara, which oversaw U.S. special operations across a broad swath of northern Africa, including Libya.
The briefing came after weeks of questions from members of Congress about where he was. Pentagon officials repeatedly insisted that Bristol could not be ordered to testify because he was retired, until Marine Corps Times reported on July 17 that he actually would not be moved to the retired list until this Thursday. The Pentagon reversed course two days later, saying Bristol would be available to answer questions.
Bristol is still expected to leave active duty and retire on Thursday, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine spokeswoman.
Bristol clarified for the committee how orders were given to personnel on the ground who were responding to the attack, according to the committee summary. He was traveling in Africa that night, he said, and had unreliable communications, which “prohibited him from participating in the attack response beyond an initial conversation with LTC Gibson” and Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who was the commander of Special Operations Command Africa at the time.
“Colonel 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,” the armed services committee summary said.
“Bristol elaborated that Gibson’s orders changed over time, as conditions on the ground evolved,” the summary continued. “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 the 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.”
Bristol’s testimony had been sought by a number of congressional Republicans who have accused the Obama administration of covering up what happened that night. In addition to the briefing Wednesday, Bristol met last week with Sen. Lindsey Graham, said a spokeswoman for the senator, Alice James. She did not characterize what they covered in the discussion, but Graham told CBS News earlier this week that his staff has heard from a number of officials within the special operations and intelligence communities who said they have good leads on where suspects in the attacks are, but have not been cleared to follow through on them.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., cited the initial Marine Corps Times story on the House floor on July 18, saying if it was true Bristol was not retired it “raises serious concerns about the priority of the administration’s efforts to silence those with knowledge of the Benghazi attack in response.” Wolf added that he had been told by credible sources that survivors, along with other Defense Department and CIA personnel, have been asked or directed to sign non-disclosure agreements about Benghazi, some as recently as this summer.
The committee summary released by the armed services committee on Wednesday addressed the non-disclosure concerns, too. Rep. Buck McKeon, R.-Calif., committee chairman, wrote to the Defense Department recently asking whether anyone had been required to sign non-disclosure agreements after the attacks. The Pentagon responded and said that is not the case, the summary said.