WASHINGTON - Small teams of special operations forces arrived at American embassies throughout North Africa in the months before militants launched the fiery attack that killed the U.S. ambassador in Libya. The soldiers' mission: Set up a network that could quickly strike a terrorist target or rescue a hostage.
But the teams had yet to do much counterterrorism work in Libya, though the White House signed off a year ago on the plan to build the new military task force in the region and the advance teams had been there for six months, according to three U.S. counterterror officials and a former intelligence official. All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strategy publicly.
The counterterror effort indicates that the administration has been worried for some time about a growing threat posed by al-Qaida and its offshoots in North Africa. But officials say the military organization was too new to respond to the attack in Benghazi, where the administration now believes armed al-Qaida-linked militants surrounded the lightly guarded U.S. compound, set it on fire and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Republicans have questioned whether the Obama administration has been hiding key information or hasn't known what happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
They are using those questions in the final weeks before the U.S. elections as an opportunity to assail President Barack Obama on foreign policy, an area where he has held clear leads in opinion polls since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
On Tuesday, leaders of a congressional committee said requests for added security at the consulate in Benghazi were repeatedly denied, despite a string of less deadly terror attacks on the consulate in recent months. Those included an explosion that blew a hole in the security perimeter and another incident in which an explosive device was tossed over the consulate fence.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress in a letter responding to the accusations that she has set up a group to investigate the Benghazi attack, and it is to begin work this week.
As of early September, the special operations teams still consisted only of liaison officers who were assigned to establish relationships with local governments and U.S. officials in the region. Only limited counterterrorism operations have been conducted in Africa so far.
The White House, the CIA and U.S. Africa Command all declined to comment.
"There are no plans at this stage for unilateral U.S. military operations" in the region, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday, adding that the focus was on helping African countries build their own forces.
For the Special Operations Command, spokesman Col. Tim Nye would not discuss "the missions and or locations of its counterterrorist forces" except to say that special operations troops are in 75 countries daily conducting missions.
The go-slow approach being taken by the Army's top clandestine counterterrorist unit - known as Delta Force - is an effort by the White House to counter criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, human rights activists and others that the anti-terror fight is shifting largely to a secret war using special operations raids and drone strikes, with little public accountability. The administration has been taking its time when setting up the new unit to get buy-in from all players who might be affected, such as the U.S. ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, regional U.S. military commanders and local leaders.
Eventually, the Delta Force group will form the backbone of a military task force responsible for combating al-Qaida and other terrorist groups across the region with an arsenal that includes drones.
But first, it will work to win acceptance by helping North African nations build their own special operations and counterterror units.
And nothing precludes the administration from using other military or intelligence units to retaliate against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 consulate attack in Benghazi.