WASHINGTON -- The scandal that forced spy chief David Petraeus to resign has diverted attention from another problem for the CIA: why the agency failed to anticipate or repel the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed two CIA contractors, as well as the U.S. ambassador and another American.
Four House and Senate committees are holding closed hearings this week to examine security arrangements during the assault by armed militants and why the Obama administration offered a shifting public account of the attack.
"The American people need to know, why was the security at the consulate so inadequate?" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Mr. Petraeus has agreed to testify, even though he stepped down Friday as CIA director after admitting an extramarital affair. "He is very willing and interested in talking to the committee," she told reporters. No date for his testimony has been set.
Today, the House and Senate intelligence committees will hear from acting CIA director Michael Morell, who replaced Mr. Petraeus, as well as James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and other officials.
Officials confirmed last week that the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was essentially a front for a much larger CIA base about a mile away. Most of the 30 Americans evacuated after the attack were CIA employees or contractors, not diplomats.
The State Department believed that guards at the two compounds would help each other in case of emergency. "If one compound came under attack, security personnel would flow from one to the other, or vice versa," Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, told a congressional hearing last month.
Critics want to know why it took six CIA security officers and a Libyan military force 50 minutes to reach the consulate from the annex after the attack began. They also want to know why the team was armed only with automatic rifles.
"There is no doubt the annex was not properly defended, and the men assigned there did not have the arms and equipment needed to defend it," said a former CIA case officer with long Middle East experience. "There are plans and procedures in place to secure yourself in the field that appear to have been ignored in Benghazi."
A senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity Wednesday, said, "The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation that night as quickly and as effectively as possible." He said the CIA team tried to obtain heavier weapons after the attack began at the consulate, "and when that could not be accomplished within minutes, they still moved in under fire to rescue their colleagues.
"The idea that the annex was improperly defended defies the fact that no attackers penetrated the compound and no one was injured until indirect mortar fire killed two courageous men," the official added. "As any military expert knows, defending against such violence is extremely difficult."
CIA officials and some retired officers say the facilities had adequate defenses for car bombs and other likely threats, but the small security force was outgunned and outmanned by dozens of attackers. The CIA base "wasn't overrun, nothing was compromised, no one was kidnapped," said another former CIA officer.
The two CIA contractors who were killed, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died when mortar fire hit their position on a roof at the annex.
Congressional critics also question why the CIA failed to anticipate the assault. The CIA set up its Benghazi base in part to track Islamic extremists who might pose a threat to the Libyan government or Western interests. They thus were watching Ansar al-Shariah, a militia that reportedly took part in the attack.
"I think there was ample reporting that a threat existed," said a senior congressional official not authorized to speak publicly. The CIA has launched "a very serious review of their security posture" globally since the attack, the official added.