The new Michael Bay film, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, tells the true story of six CIA security contractors who bucked orders to save American lives when Libyan militants attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. On one hand, the film strives to avoid divisive politics. Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time and has faced continued criticism for the embassy’s security, isn’t mentioned at all. But 13 Hours does paint a damning portrait of government ineptitude that helped lead to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans — a story whose details conflict with official accounts of the night of the attack, which, according to Kris “Tanto” Paronto, a former Army Ranger and one of the contractors portrayed in the film, is mostly spot on.
Prior to the attack, Paronto claims he and his team — based a few miles away at the CIA annex — warned the embassy’s head security agent Scott Strickland about the vulnerability of the poorly defended U.S. consulate. “I said, ‘If y’all get hit by anything, you’re all gonna fuckin’ die,’ ” he says, “and I remember Scott’s eyes just got huge like saucers.” Unfortunately, Paronto’s prediction soon proved accurate when some 150 armed Islamic militants backed by artillery–mounted trucks stormed the embassy around 10 p.m. on the anniversary of 9/11. While Strickland secured Ambassador Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service officer Sean Smith in the compound’s safe haven, the gunmen — unable to find them — began setting fires in the building, filling all the rooms with smoke. Meanwhile, the CIA private security team, having received the distress calls, were, according to Paronto, ordered by the base chief at the annex to stand down, leaving them to watch the assault from afar.
“You’re angry, you’re frustrated,” Paronto says. “You can see them getting their ass kicked and you can hear them on the radio, ‘Get here, we need you.’ But on the outside you have to maintain your composure because there’s over two dozen other CIA people on the base, and if you start to lose it then they’re going to lose it — and it just makes for a worse situation.”
In retrospect, Paronto chalks the CIA annex chief’s poor decisions to inexperience and pride, saying the ambassador’s life may have been saved had the chief (who has never been publicly identified) just told them, “I don’t know what to do, guys — take over.” Paronto also believes the chief’s fear for his own safety may have played a role in the decision to stand down, despite the annex having its own base security. “Honestly, I think he didn’t know what the heck to do, and he just made poor decisions. He didn’t listen to the subject matter experts, until we just decided to buck orders.” (A congressional inquiry would later conclude that the order to stand down was never issued, despite Paronto’s and his fellow team members’ continued claims that it happened.)
After receiving a final distress call from the embassy, pleading, “If you don’t get here soon, we’re all going to die,” Paronto and his team decided to disregard the chief’s orders and roll out. They soon made it to the blazing compound, but were unable to locate Stevens in the smoke (he was found by Libyans the next day and later died from asphyxiation). So Paronto and his team corralled the surviving consulate security agents and the body of Sean Smith (who had already choked to death from the smoke) and headed back to the annex.
At just after midnight, the militants attacked the CIA annex itself — the beginning of a harrowing six-hour standoff. Stationed on the roof, Paronto and his team watched as the attackers crept towards them in waves through a mist–covered field, appropriately dubbed Zombieland. In addition to firing at the attackers from the rooftops, Paronto and his team radioed in for air backup — a request that went unfulfilled despite the fact that U.S. gunships and F16s were available in Europe (a congressional committee later determined that none could have made it to the embassy in time.)
After five hours of fighting came a lull, and that’s when the mortars began falling. Paronto’s remembers seeing the rounds hit his teammates directly in front of him. “I thought they were vaporized in front of my eyes,” he says. “My heart dropped. We’ve just lost half our team.” Tyrone S. Woods, one of the contractors, and Glen Doherty, a former SEAL who flew in from Tripoli to help, were fatally wounded in the blasts. During the explosions, Paronto saw his friend, Mark “Oz” Geist, still shooting despite having half his arm blown off. “That’s motivating,” he says. “He never quit, and there’s so many times when he could’ve quit. That’s a testament to the human spirit.”
Kris Paronto attends a special screening of the film in Miami.
(Photograph by Aaron Davidson / Getty Images)
Finally, at dawn, 50 heavily armed vehicles from friendly Libyan forces rolled up to the war–torn annex. Paronto had just seen half his team wiped out, and he had no idea if this new convoy was the enemy or not. “If it was time for me to die, it was time for me to die,” he says. “That’s what was going through my head when I saw those guys.” Luckily, they turned out to be allies, allowing Tanto to, at last, take care of some urgent business. “I was like, ‘Finally, I can get off this roof and go take a shit!’ No joke, I had to take a shit that whole night.”
In the months following the attack, Paronto and the other surviving team members gave testimonies in front of different government committees. Political controversies swirled in headlines. But having signed non-disclosure agreements (a request Paronto says was out of the ordinary), the team couldn’t go to the press with the true story of what really happened that night or they’d be forced to resign. “We were like, ‘Eventually somebody’s gonna say the truth,’ ” he says. “But it just didn’t happen.”
Exasperated, the team finally decided to risk their jobs and collaborate with journalist Mitchell Zuckoff on the book that would eventually become 13 Hours. “It just got to the point where, after 8 months, it was ‘Aw, screw it. We’re gonna lose our jobs, we know it — but let’s tell the truth.’ ” The men resigned, and the book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi hit the shelves, becoming a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.
Many questions about the attack linger, but Paronto doesn’t expect to get answers anytime soon. “Petraus is never gonna say the truth,” he says. “That [air support] was available. I’ve used it before during other operations. I don’t think that they — and I don’t know who ‘they’ are, if it’s the State Department, the administration, the Department of Defense, the CIA — at least initially thought that it was going to be as bad as it was. The thing that the politicians don’t understand is that we have friends on all those [Special Forces] teams, so we know they were getting jocked up and ready to come at midnight and were then told they weren’t needed. I don’t know why. It hurts me. I feel like we got left there.”