Kris Paronto talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about what really happened in Benghazi, why he’s optimistic about the case being reopened and how he hopes history will remember the attacks.
Kris Paronto, or “Tanto” as he is known in the world of security contracting, is one of five surviving members of the Annex Security Team—CIA Special Ops contractors—who were charged with protecting the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. In his book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, Paronto, his colleagues Dave “D.B.” Denton, Mark “Oz” Geist, Jack Silva, John “Tig” Tiegen and Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff, tell the harrowing story of surviving military assaults on two separate U.S. diplomatic compounds on Sept. 11, 2012. The first assault occurred at the main consulate, and the second assault took place at the CIA annex less than two miles away. U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade created a fire in the main consulate building. Two former Navy SEALs: CIA Operative Tyrone “Rone” Woods and CIA Global Response Staff member Glen “Bub” Doherty, lost their lives during the attack on the annex.
Opportunist: How long had you been part of the Annex Security Team in Benghazi before the attacks?
Kris Paronto: I had been in Benghazi for 60 days. Deployments are limited to 60 days but certainly no more than 75 because it wears on you. [You hear about] men becoming alcoholics or going home and committing domestics, driving a motorcycle at 120 mph or killing themselves because that adrenaline and being on edge with little support has a definite effect on your psyche. I have lost several friends and not even from combat. Only 10 days before the attacks, myself and Rone and everybody extended our stay by 10 days to assist with the ambassador and then we were supposed to go home.
Opportunist: Was there anything unusual about Sept. 11, 2012? How did the day start out?
Kris Paronto:It was a normal day for me … just a typical third world country day. But a normal day for GRS [Global Response Staff] is not a normal day as in sitting back and sipping coffee all day. Stress levels are continuously high. Two of us would always stay on call, supporting our team members. If Oz was doing a couple moves that day, for example, D.B. and myself would stay back and monitor if he needed help on anything from a regular fender-bender to a flat tire to a check point. We were always ready, tactically and technically, to go from dang near zero to 100 at a moment’s notice.
There were some operations in town. John [‘Tig’] and Rone did site advancements and drove by the consulate and everything was quiet. Oz had just gone out on another operation and had dinner with one of the COs [commanding officers]. He drove by the consulate on the way out. It was quiet and nothing was going on. There was nothing to indicate the State Department facility would be attacked that night.
I remember telling [Diplomatic Security Agent] Scott Strickland to let us know if they needed us—we were always ready for an attack every day—but as far as there being notes or indications of protest or upset about a video? No, no, zero—nothing at all.
The hindsight now is that the compound was being surveilled that morning by what looked like Libyan police. The State Department knew and Ambassador Stevens had put in a complaint to the Libyan Intel service. It’s odd because there was no formal police and they didn’t have the infrastructure to set it up.
Opportunist: What type of surveillance?
Kris Paronto: Pictures were taken of the compound front gates, specifically from a watch position 200 meters from the gate. A report was put out by FOX News on that. [Militant Islamist group] Ansar al-Sharia had purchased a nice house 200 meters from the front gate of the U.S. consulate. They had been there for quite a while.
Opportunist: Please take us back to how the attacks unfolded.
Kris Paronto: We thought everything was fine. Then, at about 9:39 p.m. [local Benghazi time], we got a call from the TL [team leader] to muster the team. About 30 seconds later, we got a more forceful call—you could hear the duress in his voice—saying we all needed to muster immediately. So we got our gear and starting going to the team room. We had given the State Department guys our radios to communicate with us directly, and they were saying they were under attack. We could hear explosions and firing in the background. The rest of the team had gotten back and already had cars mustered correctly. Everybody was getting their heavier weapons. I grabbed mine, some night vision goggles and helmets. I was wearing shorts. I had fought in shorts on ships during my [Maritime security] days.
Within five minutes, we were ready to go. So we go up to the TL and [the CIA chief] ‘Bob’ and say, ‘We are ready to go.’ He looked right through me and said ‘We need to wait.’ Meanwhile, I can hear the firing of the RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], but I thought OK, alright. So we wait. I even told [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Mike Rogers this: ‘OK, I’ll give them that first five minutes.’
Then five minutes turns into 10, then 15, and Tig gets out of the car and says, ‘We are losing initiative.’ But ‘Bob’ looks at him and says, again, ‘You guys need to stand down.’ Now we’re getting upset— the aggravation and the sense of urgency grows as the time passes and you hear your friends basically dying on the radio and you’re still too far away. But the 180 of it is maintaining your military bearing and calmness. It’s hard and it’s an inner struggle, to say the least. You want to be really upset and pissed off, but as you learn when you go through training, being pissed off isn’t going to help you—especially if you’ve got to get in the shit later. Luckily, the entire team responded that way so the nonshooters didn’t start panicking.
Meanwhile, we are still getting calls from the State Department guys saying they’re under attack … the light in the building is on fire. We are trying to maintain some sense of calm because whenever you’re in a situation where everybody panics, it’s like weeds catching fire and then nobody’s any good. Finally, 27 minutes from the initial call, they said, ‘If you guys don’t get here we are gonna die.’ So we went up to the TL and the staff CIA officer and he says, ‘You guys need to wait’ and I said ‘F--- you, we aren’t waiting’ and [turning to my team] ‘Get in the f---ing car, we are going!’ It wasn’t me chewing anybody out or saying, ‘You guys are idiots.’ It was, ‘Alright, you guys had your chance. We have waited long enough and we are taking the show over now.’
Opportunist: How did you feel at that moment?
Kris Paronto: It was the coolest thing. I got Tyrone’s glance and remember nodding at him and he nodded at me and gave me a thumbs up and we got in our vehicles and headed out.
As a former officer and former NCO [non-commissioned officer] as well, I know that, OK, you don’t just run out with your hair on fire. You need to coordinate. The problem is when you get analysts and case officers without military background giving orders. If you’ve ever been in a firefight, a 30-second wait is an eternity. That’s all it takes, but they didn’t figure that out. After 15 minutes, holy cow, it’s like telling a guy you’re gonna wait for three hours. We were very upset—especially with all of us having a lot of experience overseas—but still trying to maintain our military bearing by not messing with the military command. It’s just ridiculous. We kept trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, as leadership, and we were thinking they should know but they didn’t. We were even thinking maybe they were coordinating support or air help.
Opportunist: How long did it take to get to the compound?
Kris Paronto: We got part way there and the opportunity to continue with vehicles was lost because [the enemy] had solidified their position. So we split up into teams and went on foot. It took us another 30 minutes to get there. Me and D.B. went one way and Rone, Jack and Tig the other. Our TL, who was awarded the CIA Star, which is basically the equivalent to a CIA medal of honor, let us clear the way. The whole compound—about eight to 10 acres in size—was engulfed in flames. I know it makes me sound weird, but when you’re in a situation like that everything is so vivid. I remember thinking, Wow, this is really incredible … alright, let’s get down to business.
It’s sort of terrifying but it’s war, so what are you going to do? We started clearing the buildings and trying to find the ambassador. We took turns going in and out of the villa. There was still gunfire. Elements may have been fighting Ansar al-Sharia. We find Sean and he’s dead of smoke inhalation. Then we hear this huge explosion and see a guy running behind us and his hand is gone. Then there’s another huge explosion and we see a vehicle the State Department guys set up to attack through an open gate at the back of the compound. Bullets were breaking the sound barrier, so we reengaged and fought. The book gives more details, but basically we killed two of their RPG gunners and the firing stopped. I don’t think they expected us to fire back. This gave us a break to get out of the compound. It was about midnight and we exhausted everything trying to find the ambassador. You don’t leave a fallen comrade.
Opportunist:When you returned to the annex, did back-up ever come?
Kris Paronto: We kept asking for air support but we never got it. We were never told we wouldn’t get it. That’s why I kept asking for it. At the annex, we were attacked by a probing element of 10-15 guys trying to come through ‘Zombieland’ [a patch of land that resembled the set of a horror movie]. Using our night visions, we saw they were using a house that had children and a family in it to stage from and we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to shoot kids. They took the first shot and then we brought hell down on them and kicked the crap out of them. It was a great feeling. We were 2-0 now.
We got food and water and refitted with ammo and then we were attacked by a bigger element. We let them get closer and, again, with the advantage of night visions, training, having our fighting position solidified and having worked it before it was really easy. You’re not really keeping score, but most fighting isn’t that long. It’s very intense for short durations.
Finally, around 4:30 a.m., Glen Doherty and two Delta Force operators showed up at the annex. We got where we needed to be on top of the buildings. Glen got up on the roof and the Delta Force operators stayed inside. The mortars killed Tyrone and Glen and severed Oz’s arm. It was hanging at a 90-degree angle. [Diplomatic Security agent] Dave Ubben was severely injured too.
Five mortars hit and counterattacked us at the back wall. I remember looking back and seeing smoke rise and trying to see where the attack was coming from. I was devastated knowing we just lost at least two guys, but you put it out of your head and keep fighting. Tig put a tourniquet on Oz and Dave, but Tyrone and Glen died immediately. A local militia came in and assisted us and that chased the mortar team off.
Opportunist:Why do you believe those in command told you to wait despite repeated pleas from the ambassador’s team?
Kris Paronto:They weren’t military leadership. They were pencil pushers and computer analysts. They’re not Jason Bourne spies; they’re desk spies.
Opportunist: Do you believe Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith could have been saved if you had been given different orders?
Kris Paronto: They died of smoke inhalation, not from an IED or being shot. That took time. We were very good at our job. We could’ve created a diversion other than just standing around the villa with guns.
I remember walking around the compound with [Diplomatic Security agents] Alec [Henderson] and Dave [Ubben] one day and asking them about armaments and if they had machine guns. When they said they didn’t have any machine guns, I looked them right in the eye and said, ‘Guys, you know if you get attacked you’re going to die.’ Dave Ubben’s eyes got as big as saucers. So I apologized and said, ‘If you ever need us you call us and we will get over here.’ That still sticks with me because that delay made me feel like I wasn’t able to honor my word.
Opportunist: In your opinion, was the attack premeditated or was it in retaliation for the anti-Muslim video, Innocence of Muslims, as incarcerated suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala has stated?
Kris Paronto: Honestly, people need to read that with a grain of salt. Khattala is a foot soldier and a bad guy who will kill Americans, but he’s not a mastermind. That video may have made him upset, but that is just another false piece of information put out there by whomever has an agenda. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very bad guy and a good catch, but he’s not the one who planned the hit. Someone is trying to do smoke and mirrors about who he actually worked for.
The story that needs to be told is Khattala’s involvement with the February 17 Martyrs Brigade prior to Ansar al-Sharia. That was the [Islamist militia group] now aligned with Ansar al-Sharia. Ansar al-Sharia was at one time contracted by the State Department to protect the consulate. The best place to find that out is in Muslim and Libyan newspapers and Al Jazeera. In fact, aside from people who still work at Intel service, those are the people who will find the story of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade and their connection with Ansar al-Sharia.
Opportunist: How did you feel when former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the security lapses? Was the State Department truly to blame, or were mistakes made further down the chain of command?
Kris Paronto: You know, it’s got to stop somewhere. I can’t say it went any higher than that because I don’t know who she talked to. I remember [former CIA Director] Leon Panetta saying Hillary didn’t know what was going on. Sorry, but if you’re a leader you know what’s going on with your facilities. Ambassador Stevens was a high level official at a State Department facility.
General Stanley McChrystal, who was in the U.S. Army at the time I was a Ranger, was an outstanding leader. I remember him saying: ‘The failure of any mission falls on the highest chain of command.’ If something happens on the ground, it’s my battalion. So guess what, Hillary, it’s your fault. Not knowing is your fault.
Eric Nordstrom [Diplomatic Security Officer and former Regional Security Officer in Libya] and Gregory Hicks [Foreign Service Officer and former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya] had put in multiple requests for heavier weapons at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. They would have dinner with us in Tripoli and talk about how they kept running into roadblocks to get more security. So it does fall on her and her security advisors. As for the White house? I don’t know. I have no idea.
Opportunist: As you think back to that night, how do you feel about it today?
Kris Paronto: That it’s our fault because we didn’t just buck the orders and leave. It’s our fault and the bad guys’ fault. I hold myself accountable for their deaths. It’s hard to do that every day but I have to live through that. It’s what I signed up for when I joined and decided what I wanted to do with my life.
Opportunist: A few weeks ago the House Intelligence Committee released the results of its investigation, which concluded that there was no wrongdoing and that both the CIA and U.S. military responded appropriately to the attacks. What was your reaction to their findings?
Kris Paronto:We figured it would come out similar to the intermediate report. It’s agenda-driven. Whether it’s from the right or the left, it’s a whitewash and it kind of taints the truth and gets the story slanted one way or the other. Unfortunately, this causes people to not want to hear about it anymore. But it’s not about politics, the White House, Hillary or anybody else. It’s about the heroism of what happened that night.
I was lucky to be on C-SPAN and was able to vent to a caller. I was very professional about it and said I had told [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Mike Rogers and the committee we were delayed. I was told to wait twice. Tig [John Tiegen] testified separately with staff members—not with myself, Oz [Mark Geist] or Jack [Silva]. They never had D.B. [Dave Benton] testify at all. I looked Mike Rogers in the eye and didn’t mince my words when I said ‘Delays cost the lives of Sean Smith and the ambassador.’ Every time I’ve done an interview I’ve said it exactly the same way. Yes, I disobeyed orders. And I would do it again because my friends were going to burn and they were going to die.
What I’m hearing from people I’ve spoken with and from [Rep. Devin] Nunes [R-Calif.], is that our hearing was very odd. It’s not how a normal House Intel hearing should go. I don’t know if Chicago style politics is going on—you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours—but the media who put out nothing about the heroism of that night immediately jumped on that report as if to say ‘Look, we were vindicated.’
Opportunist:Are you optimistic about the case being reopened and Congressman Trey Gowdy being appointed to lead the probe?
Kris Paronto:I think it gives us the opportunity to have another platform and opens it back up again. There’s still cover-up, and I’m glad folks like you and your magazine have given us a platform.
Opportunist:Will Congressman Gowdy be provided the name of the individual who told you guys to ‘stand down?’
Kris Paronto:I don’t think so. He will need to do his lawyer work and find out. He will be speaking to new people that Mike Rogers didn’t talk with.
It’s hard for me to have full faith in Congress or the administration or politicians. They turned their backs on us and called us liars. For 18 years I gave my life to protect the values of this country, so I have to have faith in the United States. I’m confident Trey Gowdy will validate what really happened.
Opportunist: How do you hope history will remember the attack on Benghazi?
Kris Paronto: I would like people to remember the heroic acts and those who gave their lives to save others, that integrity is still alive, that good people stood up and did the right thing and told the truth. I don’t know if they will but, hopefully, 10 years from now they will. On the training side, I hope people remember the negatives so they will never happen again. I would also like to see this [discussed] in a history class.
Opportunist: Will any changes in protocol be made as a result of what you and your team went through?
Kris Paronto: Nah, at least not with the GRS. On the State Department side, they will finger drill it on paper but do nothing down range. Will they implement it? No, I doubt it. They aren’t using us to go ahead and start training their guys on how to respond or prepare for attacks.
Opportunist:How can the United States prevent future terrorist attacks on its interests overseas as well as on the home front?
Kris Paronto: If we aren’t willing to go full-bore on projects at U.S. facilities overseas we don’t need to be there. You’re either all in or all out. As for Benghazi, we shouldn’t have even been there. Companies like Blackwater or Triple Canopy or MVM do have their place in government contracting. They may not be out on the road but they’re good at base security. We need U.S. Marines or contractors to protect our facilities.
In the United States we’ve got to stop people infiltrating across the border. Anything we are involved with—even with ISIS—we have to win if we’re going to go into a battle. We have to wipe them out. As we have seen over the last 10 to 13 years with Islamic terrorists, you can almost wipe out an organization but if you leave just a little it will come back—and worse than it was before. We cannot just pull U.S. troops out of every place that’s a training ground or we will have another 9/11. We have to fully commit or these types of things are going to keep happening for years and years to come.
Opportunist: What’s next for you, Kris?
Kris Paronto: The promotion of the book and now the [forthcoming] movie has taken a lot of my time.
I’m very pleased to say we hooked up with one of the best authors in the world, Mitchell Zuckoff. The book is going to be made into a movie. Paramount purchased it and is in talks with Michael Bay to direct it. So there is a silver lining there I guess. But I have missed so much time with my family over the last 10 years. I just want to spend time with my kids. There are no more wars for me to fight—at least not overseas—and I have been toying with the idea of running for congress in Nebraska, maybe. [Laughs]
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Kris Paronto on Twitter: @KrisParonto (https://twitter.com/krisparonto)
Find 13 Hours on Amazon