The U.S. military's top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is reportedly compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects.
WASHINGTON — The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants suspected of killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, senior military and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters implicated in the attack.
The U.S. military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said.
That’s the first step the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency are taking in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to go after those determined to have played a role in the attack three weeks ago in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues.
Potential military options could include drone strikes, Special Operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, and joint missions with Libyan authorities.
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To help prioritize which militants to watch, the Pentagon has stepped up its use of surveillance drones over eastern Libya, collecting electronic intercepts, imagery and other information to help planners compile target lists.
Spokesmen for the Defense Department and CIA declined to comment.
Obama and his advisers are eager to counter Republican criticism over a possible intelligence and security failure in Benghazi that has emerged as a presidential- campaign issue. But administration officials say no decisions have been made on any potential targets and that a bin-Laden type raid would be unlikely before the Nov. 6 election.
Republicans on the House oversight committee Tuesday accused administration officials in Washington of turning down diplomats’ repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi before the attack.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, committee leaders listed more than a dozen episodes, several of them violent, in the past six months that they said formed the basis for repeated requests by the diplomatic mission in Libya for more security.
Reps. Darrell Issa of California, the committee’s chairman, and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the subcommittee on foreign operations, said in the letter that officials, whose names they did not reveal, had told them of the requests. They asked for details and a briefing in a hearing Oct. 10.
In June, the letter asserted, Stevens was threatened in a posting on a Facebook page supporting the old government in Libya.
Other episodes it cited included harassment, beatings, unsuccessful bombing attempts, gunfights and attacks with rocket-propelled grenades, directed not only at Americans but also at other international representatives — including the Red Cross and the British ambassador.
“Put together, these events indicated a clear pattern of security threats that could only be reasonably interpreted to justify increased security for U.S. personnel and facilities in Benghazi,” the letter said.
The events in Benghazi have been seized upon by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, and by other critics of Obama as evidence of weakness in his foreign policy.
The administration, for its part, has varied its descriptions of the attack, first saying it appeared to be a spontaneous or opportunistic escalation of a riotous protest, then ultimately calling it an act of terrorism.
Who might be targeted
The Libyan government has opposed any unilateral U.S. military action in Libya to apprehend the attackers.
“We will not accept anyone entering inside Libya,” Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya’s prime minister, told the Al-Jazeera television network. “That would infringe on sovereignty, and we will refuse.”
The Libyan government still depends on autonomous local militia to act as its police, complicating any effort to detain obvious suspects and leaving open the possibility that they have fled the country, perhaps across the porous southern border.
Both U.S. counterterrorism officials and Benghazi residents are increasingly focused on the local militant group Ansar al-Sharia as the main force behind the attack.
Counterterrorism officials in Washington say they now believe that Ansar al-Sharia had a rough attack plan for the U.S. diplomatic mission “on the shelf” and ready for some time just in case.
Then, a U.S. official said, reports of the breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the U.S., provided the impetus to put the Benghazi attack in motion.
The Cairo attack grew out of a protest over an American-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, and fighters involved in the Benghazi attack said at the time that they were attacking for the same reason. The fighters and, later, spokesmen for Ansar al-Sharia, approvingly recalled a deadly 2006 attack on the Italian consulate in Benghazi over another offense to the Prophet Muhammad.
What’s being gathered
In the hours after the Benghazi attack, the U.S. official said, spy agencies intercepted electronic communications from Ansar al-Sharia fighters bragging to an operative with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian insurgency that has made itself a namesake of the global terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden.
Another intercept captured cellphone conversations by militants on the grounds of the smoldering U.S. consulate in Benghazi that revealed their links to, or sympathies for, the regional al-Qaida group.
In Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia’s role in the attack has been an open secret since the evening it began. The group’s leaders had boasted of their ability to flatten the U.S. compound. Witnesses saw trucks emblazoned with the logo of their brigade at the scene, fighters who assaulted the compound acknowledged their affiliation with the group, and witnesses saw their faces.
U.S. officials say that since the Benghazi attack, special-operations planners have sharply increased their efforts to track the location and gather information on several members of Ansar al-Sharia as well as other militants with ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
It is unclear precisely how many of the “target packages” are being prepared — perhaps a dozen or more. But military and counterterrorism officials said Libyan authorities had helped by at least identifying suspected assailants based on witness accounts, video and other photographs from the scene.
Information from Tribune Washington Bureau was used in this report.