CIA security officers went to the aid of US State Department staff less than 25 minutes after they got the first call for help during the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, US intelligence officials said, as they laid out a detailed timeline of the agency's immediate response.
The suspected al-Qaeda-linked raid, on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US, killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the Libyan city.
The timeline was offered just days before the US presidential election in a clear effort to refute recent news reports that the CIA told its personnel to "stand down" rather than go to the consulate to help repel the attackers. Fox News reported that when CIA officers in Benghazi called senior officers to tell them the consulate was under fire, they were twice told to "stand down".
The CIA publicly denied the report. Its annex in Benghazi is located away from the consulate.
The intelligence officials, who would not be named, said on Thursday that when the CIA annex received a call about the assault, an agency security team tried to get heavy weapons and other aid from the Libyans.
But when the Libyans failed to respond, the security team, which carries small arms, went ahead with the rescue attempt. The officials said that at no point was the team told to wait. Instead, they said the outmanned and outgunned team members made all key decisions on the ground, with no second-guessing from senior officials from afar.
The consulate attack has become a political issue in Washington, with Republicans questioning the security at the consulate, the intelligence on militant groups in North Africa and the Obama administration's response in the days after the attack.
Meanwhile, a Tunisian suspected of involvement in the assault on the consulate has been detained after being expelled from Turkey, the Tunisian justice ministry said yesterday.
A ministry statement said two Tunisians were arrested in Turkey and then expelled last month on the basis of information supplied by US intelligence linking them to the attack.
The ministry statement also did not say whether one of the two men was Ali Hamzi, a young man charged last week with belonging to "a terrorist group based abroad".
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse