A House committee formally concluded for the first time that there was no military "stand down" order given on the night of the deadly terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
It's a finding that one committee aide acknowledged to TheBlaze, "some people are going to be upset about." The allegation that the military was told to stand down on aiding the Americans in Benghazi has long been used to accuse the Obama administration of not doing enough to save the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others during the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks.
The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee, however, concluded in its new report that no such order was given; rather, Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, then-head of the site security team at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, was ordered by higher commanders to remain in Tripoli, lest another attack take place there as part of a larger coordinated assault.
This Sept 13, 2012 file photo shows a Libyan man investigating the inside of the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. (AP/Mohammad Hannon, File)
"The term 'stand down' means different things to different people. To someone in uniform, it means you are to do nothing ... that is not the direction that Lt. Col. Gibson was given," the committee aide told TheBlaze.
The finding is part of the committee's Benghazi report set to be released Tuesday. Stevens, information technology specialist Sean Smith, and CIA security contractors and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed.
"They didn't know where the next attack was coming from," the aide said. "They were given alternate orders to stay in Tripoli."
Testifying before the House Oversight Committee last May, Gregory Hicks, Stevens' former deputy chief of mission in Libya, did not object to Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz's use of the words "stand down" in describing orders during the assault.
“I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson, he said, ‘this is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military,’” Hicks testified in May.
But Gibson himself told members of the House Armed Services Committee in a briefing the following month that his four-person team was given no order to stand down, an assertion also made in congressional testimony by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I was not ordered to stand down. I was ordered to remain in place. 'Stand down' implies that we cease all operations, cease all activities. We continued to support the team that was in Tripoli. We continued to maintain visibility of the events as they unfolded. ... If we would have went into Benghazi, it could have been catastrophic," Gibson said in June.
One member of Gibson's team, a medic, is credited with providing critical care to Benghazi survivors who arrived in Tripoli.
"The Special Forces medic was instrumental in providing the support to the wounded that returned. We would not have been in Tripoli in order to provide that support if we would have got on the plane [to Benghazi]. The decision by my higher headquarters to not get on that plane was the correct decision, in hindsight," Gibson said.
Obama administration critics have repeatedly used the "stand down" order in suggesting that the White House and State Department have engaged in a cover-up over Benghazi.
"I think some people are going to be upset about it," the committee aide said of the report's finding. "There is plenty to criticize the administration for ... [but] the criticism that there is a 'stand down' order, we just couldn't find support for. Not in the sense that others had interpreted it. He was certainly told, 'do not go to Benghazi,' but as we say, there was a reason why."
The aide said Gibson was put in an "impossible situation" because of the White House's "inability to prepare" for possible attacks marking the anniversary of 9/11.
"What words were spoken and orders given are only relevant to this investigation because of the impossible situation that Gibson was put in," the aide said. "He was never intended to have to respond to a crisis like that, it was not what his mission was there for. He was a soldier honestly trying to defend fellow Americans under fine and he was forced into a position where he had to make an impossible choice: Do I stay and defend the people here in case there's an attack, or do I run forward to defend the people under attack, not knowing fully what was going on out there?"
"He was forced to make that choice as a consequence of the White House's inability to prepare ahead of the crisis ahead of that anniversary," the aide continued. "That is a completely unfair position to put him in, and what words are used or what orders are given to him are only relevant because he was put in that position in the first place."
This post has been updated with additional quotes from the committee aide about Gibson's role.