Authors: Mitchell Zuckoff
Several of the six contract operators were old friends, like Jack and Rone, and Tanto and D.B. Some had worked alongside each other before, like Tig and D.B., in Benghazi or elsewhere, while some were on their first GRS trip together. Regardless of whether they knew one another before arriving in Benghazi, all were connected through
networks of former special operators and security contractors. For instance, Jack and Tanto had never worked together prior to Benghazi, but they were linked through a third operator. While working on a contract basis in Tripoli, Tanto had become friends with Jack and Rone’s old SEAL buddy Glen “Bub” Doherty, who continued to work on the GRS security team in the Libyan capital.
Some GRS security teams coexisted but never meshed, which wasn’t surprising given the number of testosterone-fueled alpha males among the operators and their different service backgrounds. Some grew surly and withdrawn in the harsh and stressful conditions under which they worked. The GRS team in Benghazi during the summer of 2012 certainly could have gone that way. Yet they jelled. They trusted one another in tight situations, and they liked working and hanging out together. When the chef had a night off, they’d make runs into the city for trunkloads of pizza and shawarma. Sometimes at night, when the work was done, they’d build a fire in a fifty-five-gallon drum and sit around the “pond” talking, smoking a hookah pipe, and making each other laugh. All were in their late thirties or forties, all had been around, and all had wives and kids they loved and could support more easily with their GRS pay. Their comfort among each other factored into the equation when Rone, Tanto, and D.B. were scheduled to return home at the beginning of September. Instead, all three extended their time in Benghazi, to help with an upcoming visit by the US ambassador.
When they weren’t working or planning their next moves, the GRS operators cleaned their weapons, practiced
shooting, updated their mapping software and other computer tools, and maintained their vehicles. Day and night, whenever they were in the Annex they understood that they constituted a Quick Reaction Force: If anyone from the Annex or the State Department’s Special Mission Compound was in danger, they’d respond.
While on standby, most played video games. A voice would ring out over the radio, ordering operators to report for “tactical training.” The GRS guys knew that was code for a
Call of Duty
tournament on Xbox in Building B. During the fiercely competitive games, Tanto and Oz engaged in brutal trash-talking that inevitably began with the phrase, “Your momma,” and ended with anatomically impractical suggestions.
As a running joke, during meals or just walking through the Annex, one would randomly call out the cliché line from every bad horror or war movie: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” They read, talked, watched pirated movies on CDs purchased from local shops, called and sent e-mails home, worked out, ran, and napped. Jack called his bed a “time machine,” because every hour of shut-eye transported him one hour closer to returning to his family. That desire became more intense following a Skype session with his wife shortly after Jack arrived in Benghazi: She surprised him with news that she was pregnant. His excitement was tempered by the thought of another mouth to feed, another college education to plan for, and above all, another person relying on him to get home safely.
Jack’s nonwork routine also included regular visits to a large olive tree next to Building D that was home to a neon-green praying mantis almost as big as his hand. The tree had a flytrap with a one-way opening on top, so flies lured
to the bait couldn’t get out. Jack watched up close as the giant mantis perched motionless above the opening, blending with the leaves. The moment its prey landed, the mantis would strike, snatching the fly with its spindly front legs, then devouring it. The mantis had a bulging stomach, testament to its speed and the endless food supply. Between flies, the mantis often turned its triangular head and calmly watched Jack watching it. After the mantis had eaten three or four flies, it would leave its spot at the flytrap buffet and climb higher into the tree. The mantis fascinated Jack, who considered it like a pet. Yet, in a hostile city where Americans made ripe targets for radical extremists who could blend effortlessly with their surroundings, Jack also could identify with the flies.
While Jack studied the mantis, Tanto had a different way of killing time between moves. Walking through the Annex, he’d pass a security camera and break into a wild dance, then resume walking as though nothing had happened. Tanto also enjoyed getting to know the Libyans they hired as local guards. One regularly hit him up for candy bars, so Tanto nicknamed him “Snickers.” Tanto kept his new pal well supplied, then watched as the formerly skinny guard grew a spare tire. “You try to befriend them so at least they’re a damn speed bump if we get attacked,” he’d say. “It’s a hearts and minds thing.”
Tanto had strong opinions on most things, none stronger than his views on the best kind of operators in a place like Benghazi: “Guys that are ramped up all the time are not good GRS operators. They won’t last at the job. You have to be able to associate, go to a restaurant and be out in town, go walk and order a paper, go order a coffee. If you’re always looking like you’re about ready to get in a
fight, the locals will pick that up quicker than shit. But also you can’t be so low key that when the shit hits the fan you can’t turn that light switch on and go a hundred miles an hour.” Tanto prided himself on being able to go “from zero to a hundred in five seconds, if not quicker.”
Usually every Friday, American security team members from the Special Mission Compound drove to the Annex for a status update and to talk about the week ahead. The visitors were members of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, known as the DS, the law enforcement and security arm of the State Department. Congress created the bureau in 1985, as part of a response to the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. Another impetus was the 1979 abduction of Adolph Dubs, the US ambassador to Afghanistan. Dubs died during a rescue attempt. No American ambassador had been killed in office since then.
Inside the United States, more than two thousand DS officers worked for the Diplomatic Security Service, to safeguard the Secretary of State and visiting dignitaries, everyone from Yasser Arafat to the Dalai Lama. On US soil, those DS agents also issued security clearances, conducted cybersecurity investigations, and battled passport and visa fraud. The larger and usually dicier role for Diplomatic Security agents fell beyond American borders.
Globally, some eight hundred DS staff agents, supplemented by more than thirty thousand security contractors, oversaw the safe conduct of American foreign policy. Their job was to protect personnel and sensitive information at roughly 275 diplomatic outposts in 157 countries. The job was endless. Between 1998 and 2012, one government
study found, US diplomatic facilities and personnel came under “significant” attack 273 times, not including almost constant assaults on the US Embassy in Baghdad since 2004.
DS agents assigned a threat level to every diplomatic outpost, based on six categories: international terrorism, indigenous terrorism, political violence, crime, human intelligence, and technical threat. The threat levels were low, medium, high, or critical. The last two were defined as having “serious” or “grave” impact on American diplomats. During 2012, more than half of all American diplomatic posts around the world were considered “critical” or “high” for the threat of terrorism. However, only fourteen were considered dangerous enough for the DS to deem the threat level “critical” or “high” in every category. Two of those were in Libya: Tripoli and Benghazi.
For the DS agents in Libya, one of the biggest events in the summer of 2012 was a five-day visit to Benghazi, starting September 10, being planned by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who normally was based at the embassy in Tripoli.
To help the DS agents in advance of Stevens’s visit, the Annex’s GRS operators conducted a security assessment at the Special Mission Compound, where Stevens would stay. During the review, Tanto asked the DS agents how many security team members they’d have on hand when the ambassador visited, not including local militiamen or other Libyans hired as guards. Five, they told him, each armed with an M4 assault rifle, a mainstay weapon of the US military. Tanto learned that the DS agents collectively had about a dozen years of military experience. He knew
that the Annex operators had closer to one hundred years of collective military and contracting experience, much of it on elite security teams. The GRS team also had larger and more powerful weapons.
“If you guys get attacked by any big element,” Tanto told them, “you’re going to die.” Realizing that he’d come across stronger than intended, Tanto reassured the DS agents: “If you need assistance, we’re going to help you.”
During the first week of September, with the ambassador’s visit just days away, Rone put his nursing and paramedic training to use by offering a refresher medical course for all Annex staffers. He walked them through the proper field response to gunshot wounds, explosion injuries, and other traumas. After a classroom session in Building D, Rone set up a practical exercise outside, using Jack as the “victim” in a scenario in which he supposedly was hit by a grenade. Ketchup substituted for blood on Jack’s bare leg. Rone instructed everyone how to properly use a tourniquet and to safely evacuate a victim.
Another day, Rone and Jack drove to the diplomatic Compound with Bob, the Annex base chief. While Bob attended a meeting, Jack and Rone sat at an outdoor table under a covered patio with two DS agents, David Ubben and Scott Wickland. Ubben was a big guy, about six foot four and 250 pounds, with dark hair and a handlebar mustache that he was growing as part of a competition among the State Department security agents. Wickland stood about five foot ten, with a medium build, sandy-brown hair, and light eyes. The wispy fuzz on his upper lip suggested that
Wickland was competing in the cheesy mustache competition, too. Jack and Rone were ready to declare Ubben the winner.
The four men talked about their families and their prior military careers, Jack and Rone as SEALs, Ubben in the Army, and Wickland as a Navy rescue swimmer. Wickland and Ubben confided in the operators that they’d repeatedly requested more Diplomatic Security personnel at the Compound because they were short-staffed. Those requests had fallen on deaf ears, they told Jack and Rone, and they couldn’t understand why.
In an effort to help, the operators arranged a drill to teach the DS agents ways to respond to a terrorist attack. The scenario called for an enemy force to attempt to overrun the Annex, but the operators explained that the same principles would apply if the target were the diplomatic Compound. They rehearsed how to respond to “active shooters” inside the walls, and how to keep track of all personnel who needed protection, above all the ambassador, a practice the operators called “accountability.” The operators demonstrated the protocols they used for such events, to simultaneously repel an attack and ensure the safety of the staffers they called “non-shooters.” By the time the drill ended, Jack concluded that their small numbers and their lack of special-operator military training would put the five DS agents who’d be guarding the ambassador at an extreme disadvantage if the Compound came under attack.