Center for Strategic Communication

A Naval explosives technician jumps out of a C-130 cargo plane above the Sigonella air base, 2009. Sigonella was a staging ground for two U.S. military units deployed to respond to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Photo: U.S. Army

A day after the CIA released a new timeline of its reaction to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the Pentagon added some detail to its recap of events as well, confirming that it had two elite military units that mobilized just slightly too late to help repel last month’s attack. But those units also had the capability to deal with the aftermath of the attack — and the Pentagon isn’t saying what happened to them once they arrived at a Sicilian airbase a few hundred miles from Libya, leaving the possibility they might play a role in hunting the perpetrators of the attack.

Much remains unclear about the Libya assault. But now different parts of the bureaucracy have taken to explaining they were thisclose to helping stop it. State Department officials last month testified to monitoring it almost in real time, but U.S. officials have said State’s hired guard force lacked the capacity to repel the attack. (They may have a point.) The CIA portrayed itself as responding to the attack from multiple fronts as it was happening, successfully extracting U.S. personnel from the site — except for the four Americans who died. (Additionally, top intelligence officials have blamed themselves for the White House’s initial, incorrect explanation that the attack emerged from a protest over an anti-Islamic video.) On Friday, Pentagon spokesman George Little weighed in, explaining a little more than previously about how the Pentagon rushed special operations units into position near Libya, except that the assault subsided before they could reach the country.

Within “hours” of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta learning of the attack, he ordered two distinct military units to Sigonella, an airbase on the Italian island of Sicily, a few hundred miles from Benghazi. One was a “Special Operations unit in central Europe,” Little said on Friday; the other, “another contingent of U.S. troops” stationed in the United States. Both units are distinct from the Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) ultimately sent to Tripoli the following day to secure the embassy there in the wake of the attack.

The units “were not in place until after the attacks were over,” Little said. But the Pentagon didn’t know how long the emergency would last, and the units it ordered to Sigonella could prepare for “a range of contingencies” in the aftermath of the assault.

“We were ready for the need to augment security measures at our facilities in Libya, if called upon. We were prepared for the possibility, for instance, of a hostage situation as well,” Little said. “These were all the things we were looking at in the midst of an event that we did not know was going to happen in Benghazi that night.” That decisiveness is different, at least in tone, from Panetta’s remarks at a press conference last week that he lacked “some real-time information about what’s taking place” that inhibited commanders from ordering troops into Benghazi.

Little wouldn’t describe the two units with any specificity. It’s already been reported that one special operations unit was at Sigonella. The second unit is less familiar, but Little appeared to confirm an element of a Fox News report last week that mentioned a second elite special-operations unit was at the airbase, including Delta Force personnel — which would make sense, given the potential for a hostage-rescue mission, a Delta specialty.

It’s less clear what actually happened to those units after they reached Sigonella and the attack of the consulate had ended. In the days after the attack, U.S. officials spoke openly about hunting the attackers, a line reiterated by President Obama in a debate with challenger Mitt Romney. But the Pentagon has spoken less about that hunt as time has passed, and the official line has centered more on Libyan government forces leading the search for those responsible for Benghazi.

Anonymous administration officials have begun casting blame for the disaster. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly accepted responsibility last month for the lack of security at the consulate. Behind the scenes to the press, anonymous officials, seemingly sympathetic to the State Department, portrayed CIA Director David Petraeus as an impediment to securing a consulate that was apparently little more than a diplomatic fig leaf covering a CIA operation. Panetta has not faced the same level of criticism, but now that the knives are out for Petraeus, it’s an open question who will play the scapegoat next.

The Pentagon is not saying what happened to the military units it sent to Sigonella, despite repeated inquiries by Danger Room on Friday. It’s unclear, for instance, if those units ever deployed to Libya at a later date. Nor has the Pentagon’s provided a timeline of its decisionmaking on Benghazi that possesses the specificity of the one provided by the CIA on Thursday.

“They were at Sigonella many, many hours after the attacks had ended,” is all Little said. “Orders were issued within a few hours of us learned about the events in Benghazi that evening. We did not know when the attacks would end.”

Should the attackers resurface, however, it’s possible that we may hear more about the units that made it to Sigonella. At least one of them has openly mocked the U.S. hunt for the assailants while meeting with a New York Times reporter. Another suspect in the assault, Ali Ani al-Harzi, is in Tunisian custody, and two U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) announced on Friday that the Tunisians will make al-Harzi available to the FBI. Maybe those elite units sent to Sigonella will make an appearance in Libya, if they didn’t actually make it to Benghazi in September.