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Benghazi contractor won’t play politics in Oklahoma City talk

Kris Paronto
Kris Paronto

Dozens of times over the past four years, Kris Paronto has turned on his television, only to see people arguing over the basic facts of an incident he remembers firsthand — the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

As frustrating as it is to see his own personal history turned into political theater, Paronto said it's even more discouraging that nobody seems to get it quite right.

“The politicians have no clue what happened there on the ground, unless they listen to us,” he said.

Paronto, a former U.S. Army Ranger, was one of a team of CIA security contractors who defended the consulate against a terrorist attack Sept. 11, 2012. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs, were all killed in the attack.

Paronto will be in Oklahoma City on Thursday to speak at the Oklahoma County Republican Party's annual Lincoln and Reagan Dinner. In the years after the attack, Paronto was a co-author of the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi,” which was adapted into the Michael Bay film “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”

The day began relatively quietly, Paronto said. The Libyan police force was taking photos outside the consulate, Paronto said, but contrary to media reports at the time, there were no protests.

Then, at 9:32 p.m., Paronto and the five other CIA security contractors in his team received a call saying they needed to meet at a nearby CIA station called the Annex. The consulate was under attack, the call said.

Even today, Paronto gives the attackers credit for keeping their plans under wraps until the attack began. The terrorists couldn't hope to overwhelm U.S. and Libyan security personnel with superior firepower or numbers, he said, so the element of surprise represented their only advantage.

“They're good at blending in and surprising you with an attack,” Paronto said. “They're excellent at it.”

The team's Annex was less than a mile from the consulate — close enough that Paronto said the team could hear explosions and see the firefight between U.S. State Department security personnel and the attackers.

Within about five minutes, the team was ready to rush to the consulate's defense, Paronto said. But the chief of the base, whom Paronto identifies only as “Bob,” told the team to wait.

For the next 25 minutes, the team waited at the Annex, listening as calls for help came over the radio. It was haunting to hear those calls and do nothing, he said.

But all six team members were former military personnel. They were trained to obey orders, he said.

On that point, Paronto's account differs from a report released in 2014 by the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. The report concluded that no stand-down order was given.

Differing accounts

According to a fact sheet the committee released months after the report was completed, the committee concluded the delay in the CIA team's departure was shorter than Paronto recalled.

It also said the CIA security chief and the chief of the base “made sound decisions” in trying to gather more information about the attacks before allowing the team to depart.

After about 25 minutes, though, the team decided to disobey orders and head to the consulate, Paronto said. Once the team left the Annex, they didn't make it far.

The team was forced to stop about 400 meters from the entrance to the consulate, Paronto said. The delay had given attackers time to establish firing positions and block their route, he said.

It took the team about a half hour to fight its way to the entrance. By then, the consulate's main building was ablaze.

“It was just spewing flames and black smoke,” he said.

Over the next 30 minutes, the team fought its way into the compound, taking on about 50 terrorists in the process.

Although the team was badly outnumbered, it was made up of former Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and U.S. Marines — all well-trained military personnel with years of experience in overseas deployments.

Once inside, the team found Smith lying dead on the ground. A few minutes later, they located Scott Wickland, Stevens' main bodyguard, who'd been separated from the ambassador during the attack. Stevens was nowhere to be found.

At 11:45 p.m., the terrorists launched a counterattack which CIA and State Department security personnel repelled, all while still trying to locate Stevens.

Meanwhile, another team of security personnel began evacuating State Department officials to the Annex.

Along the way, a terrorist group ambushed them with machine gun fire and Molotov cocktails.

By the time the team arrived at the Annex, their vehicles' tires were on fire, Paronto said.

Eventually, Paronto's team quelled the counterattack, but they still hadn't found Stevens. The fire in the compound raged and the smoke was too heavy for the team to get to Stevens' safe room, he said.

Reluctantly, the team decided to leave the compound and go back to secure the Annex. It's a decision that haunts Paronto to this day, he said.

“It's hard to stomach, because we left somebody,” Paronto said. “The credo when you're with a Ranger unit or a SEAL unit or a Marine unit is you never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy. And we did.”

Not long after, the Annex came under attack twice. The first, a smaller attack consisting of only about 15 terrorists, wasn't difficult to repel, he said.

Over the next few hours, the team was joined by a group of Libyan fighters and U.S. reinforcements from Tripoli, who had commandeered an oil executive's private jet and ordered the pilots to fly them to Benghazi, Paronto said.

The next attack came at about 3 a.m., Paronto said, 40 to 50 fighters coming in waves, he said.

The terrorists lobbed five mortars at the Annex. The first two missed, but the other three scored direct hits on the compound, mortally wounding Woods and Doherty, the CIA contractors.

Paronto said he was directly behind Woods and Doherty when they were killed. Watching them die was sickening, Paronto said, but he tried to stay focused on fighting off the attack.

The attack caught a militia commander who had brought the U.S. reinforcements to the Annex inside the compound.

After the fifth mortar struck, the commander sent his militia to attack the terrorist mortar team.

Paronto said he still isn't sure why the militia helped the team. On any other day, U.S. security personnel could have found themselves fighting against the same militia.

Instead, the militia helped the security teams lock down the area while they evacuated State Department personnel and loaded the bodies of Woods, Doherty and Smith onto a flatbed truck and covered them with sheets.

“Sometimes it's better to be blessed, or it's better to be lucky than good,” he said.

The truck carrying the three bodies left for the airport at 7 a.m. Paronto's team would later learn that Stevens' body was pulled out of a burning building at the consulate after the attack.

A group of Libyans had taken the ambassador's body to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead of smoke inhalation.

The House Intelligence Committee report concludes that the team couldn't have saved Stevens and Smith if they had left the Annex earlier.

But Paronto said he disagrees.

“I think the ambassador and Sean Smith would still be alive if we had bucked orders a little bit earlier,” Paronto said.

In the years after the attack, Paronto said he's been discouraged to see how the incident has been politicized. The story is bigger than politics, he said.

In an election year, he recognizes that it's bound to show up in any number of political stump speeches, and he acknowledged that his Oklahoma City event is political in nature.

But he'd rather talk about how his team overcame a bad situation through courage and teamwork than focus on what it means for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations.

“It has nothing to do with that,” Paronto said.

“I just didn't want the story to be politicized to a negative level, which it has been.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›