WASHINGTON — Newly revealed testimony from top military commanders involved in the US response to the Benghazi attacks suggests that the perpetrators of a second, dawn attack on a CIA complex probably were different from those who penetrated the US diplomatic mission the evening before and set it ablaze, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and another American.
The second attack, which killed two security contractors, showed clear military training, retired General Carter Ham told Congress in closed-door testimony released late Wednesday. The assault probably was the work of a new team of militants, seizing on reports of violence at the diplomatic mission the night before and hitting the Americans while they were most vulnerable.
The testimony, which the Associated Press was able to read ahead of its release, could clarify for the first time the events of Sept. 11, 2012, that have stirred bitter recriminations in the United States, including Republican-led congressional investigations and campaign-season denunciations of the Obama administration, which made inaccurate statements about the Libyan attacks. The testimony underscores a key detail that sometimes has been lost in the debate: that the attacks were two distinct events over two days on two different buildings, perhaps by unrelated groups.
The US government still has not fully characterized the first attack in which, according to Ham and eight other military officers, men who seemed familiar with the lightly protected compound breached it and set it on fire, killing Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith. A mob of looters then overran the facility.
In testimony to two House panels earlier this year, the officers said that commanders didn’t have the information they needed to understand the nature of the attack, that they were unaware of the extent of the US presence in Benghazi at the time, and that they were convinced erroneously for a time that they were facing a hostage crisis without the ability to move military assets into place.
The testimony reveals how little information the military had on which to base an urgent response.
Two House panels — Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform — conducted interviews with the nine officers on separate days from January to April.
Four Americans died in Benghazi. To this day, it’s not clear if the violence resulted from a well-planned, multiphase military-type assault or from a loosely connected, escalating chain of events.
In their testimony, military officials expressed some uncertainty about the first attack, describing protests and looting in an assault that lasted about 45 minutes.
The military attache to the US Embassy in Tripoli told Congress the first attack showed some advance planning. The Libyan police officer guarding the compound fled as it began.
The defense attache, whose name wasn’t released, suggested the attackers ‘‘had something on the shelf’’ — an outline of a plan based on previously obtained information about the compound and its security measures, so they were ready to strike when the opportunity arose.
Ham testified that the second attack, which killed security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty at the annex a mile from the diplomatic compound, showed clear military training.
Doherty was a native of Winchester, Mass.