I was to the left of the stage at the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club Gala at the Koury Convention Center on Saturday, August 27, taking photos, so I wasn’t paying as much attention to the speakers as I might have been.
I knew the featured speaker had been introduced, and then I saw this extremely fit, athletic looking guy wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans with a bottle of beer in his hand walk past me and up on the stage. When he walked over to the microphone, I thought he must be a sound guy there to fix the microphone.
Then he started talking and when he didn’t say, “Test, test, test,” I realized the guy who had just walked past me was Kris “Tanto” Paronto, the featured speaker and one of the American soldiers from the now infamous attack on the American State Department compound and Central Intelligence Agency annex in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, where four Americans were killed and two seriously wounded.
Paronto was speaking to a full house. About 500 people had bought tickets for the annual event, two or three times more than usual.
Paronto started off by saying that he was not a professional speaker and he had no script, but was going to tell the story of what happened during that long night in Benghazi from his perspective. He also warned the audience that the first time he tried speaking to a group about Benghazi, he ended up speaking for three hours with no break, and at the end it seemed like everyone in the audience got up and ran to the restroom.
I can understand it. If he had spoken for three hours, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave and miss any of it either.
Paronto is one of the five surviving members of the CIA’s Global Response Staff team that was involved in fighting the terrorists at Benghazi. The six were all ex-military and had been hired by the CIA to provide protection for the CIA operatives in Benghazi and the annex where they lived and worked.
However, it wasn’t their job to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens or Sean Smith, a State Department communications officer, both of whom died in the attack. Paronto said that he and two other members of the team extended their stay in Benghazi when they learned that Stevens would be there on 9/11 because they were familiar with the lack of security at the State Department compound where Stevens would be staying, and with the CIA annex only a mile away they could respond quickly if needed.
Paronto said that after all the stories circulating about what happened – with the White House and the State Department floating the story that the attack was a spontaneous protest of people upset about a YouTube video – he and the other four survivors got together and decided to tell their story about what really happened. He said that if they all had not agreed to tell the story, they wouldn’t have gone forward, but they did, and the result is the book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team, and the movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Paronto said that the movie came as close to recreating what happened as he thinks is possible for a movie about an actual event to do. He and other members of the security team were consultants for the movie to help the director make it as realistic as possible.
He also said that he really said all the dumb things, and made the off-color jokes, that the actor in the movie playing him says. He said in extremely tense situations like they found themselves, you need some humor, and he took it upon himself to provide it.
He also said that when his team was reviewing the security arrangements prior to Steven’s visit, he really did stand on the diving board of the compound’s swimming pool and say, “If you guys get attacked by any big element, you’re going to die.” In the movie it sounds like something the director added, but Paronto told the audience that he had said it and then felt bad about how harsh it sounded, and added, “If you need assistance, we’re going to help you.”
Before hearing Paronto speak, I had no idea that it wasn’t the job of his team to protect the State Department compound. They showed up because they had promised they would help protect the ambassador if needed, and they were needed.
Paronto also said that, according to the official records, there was no stand down orde, but according to Paronto they got the call that the compound was under attack at 9:32 p.m., and the team was ready to go by 9:37. He said the CIA station chief who they worked for told them they couldn’t go help Stevens and the six other Americans who were under attack. They could hear the explosions and see the smoke, but they were told not to leave the annex.
Paronto said that finally, when they got a call on the radio from one of the security guys at the compound that they were all going to die if they didn’t get help, Paronto and his team decided to go, despite their orders to stay.
He said that one thing they had to consider is that if they left the annex when they were ordered to stand down, not only would they lose their jobs, their life and health insurance wouldn’t cover them. The CIA and the State Department says there was never a stand down order, but Paronto asked why they would wait nearly 30 minutes if they didn’t get a stand down order. He said, “We were told to stand down, period.”
Paronto said that he had been in charge of security for the US ambassador in Baghdad and talked about all the firepower he had at his disposal, including two Spectre gunships, armored vehicles and anything else he might need, and here was the ambassador to Libya in Benghazi with six guys with limited military experience protecting him.
He said that most of his team had been in Benghazi long enough to get to know the city, and the day that Stevens arrived they checked the areas where some kind of mass gathering would occur and everything was quiet. He said if there had been a big protest they would have known about it, but right up until the attack everything was quiet. The men at the compound reported the same thing, that everything was quiet right up until the attack.
Paronto said, “There was nothing to indicate that we would get attacked in Benghazi.” And he added that there was a vague report of some attack, but it had no detailed information, like when it was supposed to happen or who would be attacking, so it was disregarded.
Paronto said that the State Department depended on Libyan militia for protection, and added, “There was a terrorist organization living on the compound.” He said the group later declared their allegiance to one of the well-known terrorist organizations in Libya, and this was who the State Department was depending on to protect Stevens. The Libyans disappeared when the attack started and it is suspected that one of them left the gate open so the terrorists could walk right in.
Paronto said that about 45 days before and again about 30 days before the attack, the compound was attacked and they were told not to respond. He said those attacks didn’t amount to much but that sent the message that if the compound was attacked nobody was coming to help. With the ambassador coming, a high-value target, and the terrorists knowing that no one responded to attacks, they were emboldened to launch a full-scale assault. And when they did, they met no resistance.
Paronto, who obviously enjoyed his work, said, “9:32 is when the fun starts.”
He said that after they decided to go anyway, they thought they would be delayed further because they needed to find an interpreter, and then an interpreter walked right past them.
He said that after they left the annex, after waiting 30 minutes for the OK and never getting it, when they got within 400 yards of the compound, people started shooting at them. He said it took them 30 minutes to make the last 400 yards, which meant the compound had been under attack for over an hour.
Paronto said that in Libya, when there’s a firefight, everyone comes out to see what’s going on. He said that makes it really difficult to tell the terrorists from the folks in the neighborhood who came to watch. Also, there were militia who were supposed to be friendly to the US, so it was really confusing and they never knew whether someone was friend, foe or a sightseer until they started shooting.
Paronto said that at one point, when they were at the compound and taking fire, he was behind a State Department vehicle, returning fire, and the guys in the armored State Department vehicle wanted to leave, so they did, leaving him standing out in the open with terrorists shooting at him.
Paronto said that he got down on one knee and returned fire, and he said he was thinking, “I know that God’s got me and I’m good.” He also said, “I know that terrorists can’t shoot straight at night.”
The US did finally send a drone overhead, but it was just to video everything. It wasn’t a drone with weapons, and that was the help they got.
Paronto said they left the compound because, after searching and searching for Stevens in the burning residence, they were convinced he was not in there and had likely been kidnapped. They thought that might be why the terrorists left.
He said that when they got back to the CIA annex, they kept asking for air support and were never told that none was available. He said if they had been told none was available they would have quit asking, but they were always told, “We’re working on it.”
Paronto said that everyone should put on their bucket list getting in a firefight at night with a night vision scope. He said, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
He said the night vision scope makes it look like machine guns are firing lasers, and the snap of rifle rounds going past your head is really amazing.
Paronto said it was 5 in the morning before the team from Tripoli could get to them and they had already been in “three-and-a-half firefights” in eight hours.
After the group from Tripoli came, the annex was hit with another attack and this started with mortars that killed one of the team members from Tripoli, Glen “Bub” Doherty, as well as Tyrone “Rone” Woods from the Benghazi team. Two men were also seriously wounded.
Finally, help showed up in the form of the Libyan militia, but Paronto said that when they arrived they didn’t know whether they were more terrorists or friendly, but with the firepower the Libyans had, he figured if they weren’t friendly they were all dead.
One of the things that riles Paronto is that the bodies of the two men who were killed at the annex were thrown off the roof instead of being carried down.
He also said that when they finally got to the airport to get out of Benghazi and back to Tripoli, the US didn’t even send a plane for them, but they had to hitch a ride on Libyan plane. He said anybody who says anything else is wrong, because he was there and knows what happened.
Paronto didn’t speak for three hours, but he could have. He did have someone bring him another beer before he was through, and at the end he said, “I hate doing this. I hate talking about it.” He said when he got back to his hotel room he would promise himself he would never do it again because reliving the experience is painful, but then he’d get up and do it all over again because he believed it was what he was supposed to do, not because he wanted to or enjoyed it.
When he finished, he picked up his two empty beer bottles and left the stage.
If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I highly recommend both. It will make you proud to be an American for what Paronto and his team did to protect their fellow Americans. And it should make you angry that the US government, with the most powerful military in the world, never lifted a finger to help these men, two of whom died, and the rest risked their lives for 13 hours to protect fellow Americans.