Center for Strategic Communication

A Marine sniper observes a civilian evacuation exercise from the U.S. embassy in Doha, Qatar, May 2006. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps

Updated, 6:00 p.m.

Marines are on the ground in Tripoli. Two Navy ships are speeding toward Libyan waters. And neither they, nor the rest of the U.S. military, are involved in fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to bring the perpetrators of Tuesday’s lethal assault on a U.S. consulate to justice.

The military is staying out of the hunt, at least for now. Although it initially appeared Wednesday that Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, would play a leading role in commanding a force for those responsible for killing four U.S. diplomats in Libya, the Defense Department is limiting its role in Libya to securing the embassy and protecting remaining U.S. nationals in the country.

The search will be spearheaded by the FBI, as is the case with many investigations overseas involving harm done to U.S. nationals, such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.

“The FBI has an open investigation into the deaths of the four U.S. citizens in Libya and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya,” Dean Boyd, the spokesman for the FBI’s National Security Directorate, e-mailed Danger Room.

“When conducting such investigations, the FBI coordinates closely with the Justice Department, the Department of State, and the appropriate government partners in the host nation,” Boyd added. “The FBI cannot comment on any investigative actions or operations related to this incident at this time. The FBI will not speculate on the facts and circumstances surrounding the attacks.”

“We will cooperate fully, if called upon, to support their investigation,” said George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman. “To my knowledge, we haven’t received a specific request.”

Defense Department officials also backed away from a CNN story on Wednesday, amplified by Danger Room, that drones would aid in the hunt for the Benghazi killers. Army Lt. Gen. Jim Gregory, another Pentagon spokesman, said that the drone surveillance that has not relented over Libya since last year’s war ended is unrelated to the Benghazi event, and would “neither confirm nor deny” that they’ll be used to help find the killers of the four diplomats.

Little said the Pentagon was “grateful to the Libyan government for its assistance” in helping with the Benghazi crisis — in which Libyan security forces helped suppress the attack — and it appears the Pentagon intends to quantify that gratitude. InsideDefense reports that the Pentagon is asking Congress to approve an $11.8 million security aid package, mostly to help train Libyan special forces to “counter and defeat terrorist and violent extremist organizations.” In the likeliest scenario for actually finding the killers among the people of Benghazi and nearby areas, Libyan security forces will play a leading role, with the FBI and other U.S. government officials supporting them.

The Defense Department doesn’t play a leading role in embassy security. That’s a State Department responsibility, which State often supplements in conflict zones with contract guards. Marines are typically stationed inside embassies as security of last resort, and a core part of their responsibilities is to protect sensitive government documents, rather than repel assaults.

And the State Department may reduce its reliance on the U.S. military even more. Paul McLeary reports for Defense News that the diplomats want to spend $1 billion over five years to purchase a fleet of small, unarmed surveillance drones like Ravens and Shadows to increase their situational awareness around embassies. The State Department’s Iraq embassy, the largest and most heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic installation in the world, already uses drones, and even has its own hired air force.

Little said that the military stands ready to help secure embassies beyond Tripoli should State determine that demonstrations, whether spurred by bizarre anti-Islam films or otherwise, threaten diplomats. And he left the door open to aiding the hunt for the Benghazi killers at the FBI’s behest. “Rest assured that this department is going to work very closely with our interagency partners to help investigate if we’re called upon to assist,” Little said, “and we will play our part to get to the root of what happened here.”

Additionally, Little addressed a meme circulating online that the Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were not issued ammunition for their rifles during Tuesday’s raucous demonstration by Egyptian protesters. Little said he’d seen no evidence that there was any truth to the story. Now the Marines are firmly shooting the meme down as well.

A Marine email circulating to lawmakers curious about the story — acquired by Danger Room and confirmed as authentic — says bluntly that the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group in Cairo “were allowed to have live ammunition in their weapons.”

The security newsletter NightWatch published a claim that the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, prevented the Marines from loading their weapons. “Thus she neutralized any US military capability that was dedicated to preserve her life and protect the US Embassy,” the newsletter claimed.

Untrue, the Marine email states: “The Ambassador and Regional Security Officer have been completely and appropriately engaged with the security situation. Reports of Marines not being able to have their weapons loaded per direction from the Ambassador are not accurate.”