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Administration releases more info on Benghazi actions

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By Jill Dougherty and Mike Mount, CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) – With the election over, the Obama administration is releasing more information to Congress and journalists about the deadly attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Post-election, the questions of the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks continue, and the Pentagon and State Department Friday released information to try to further clarify decisions made before, during and after the attacks.

The information is the latest attempt by the various U.S. agencies to explain their role in the attacks, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. After being bombarded with requests from congressional committees for documents about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the State Department said Friday that it has handed over a number of documents to Congress for review.

And Friday afternoon the Pentagon released an hour-by-hour timeline highlighting when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his senior commanders were told of the attacks and when decisions were made to move forces to assist. The information shows that the scramble to respond was not even close to being in a time frame to help fend off the attack, with special units only getting in position a half-day after the attack ended.

The Pentagon’s timeline does not uncover any discrepancies from what has been said publicly by Panetta, but it does show that the first U.S. military troops to arrive in Libya in response to the attack came more than 14 hours after the initial attack began.

While the U.S. military was playing only a small role at the time in Libya, the timeline shows that some of the troops called up by Panetta had to travel long distances, while others were closer to North Africa.

But Pentagon officials and Panetta say that regardless of the time and distance, military forces could not be inserted until there was a better understanding of what was happening on the ground in Benghazi.

According to the timeline, Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were told of the attack about an hour after it started, as both men were on their way to the White House for an already scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama. Thirty minutes later, the president was directing the Pentagon to do all it could to assist, according to senior Pentagon officials.

In a letter sent to members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Panetta explained there were no military forces close at hand to assist the Americans as they came under fire in the two attacks that night.

McCain and other Republican senators criticized Panetta’s response.

“Over the past month, we and our colleagues have sent 13 separate letters to senior administration officials. … Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta’s letter only confirms what we already knew — that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya. The letter fails to address the most important question — why not?” according to a joint statement by the senators.

“This question is all the more puzzling considering that the attack in Benghazi occurred on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history — a day when we know that our enemies around the world are plotting and planning to hit us again,” according to the statement.

But Pentagon officials briefing reporters on the timeline said the military was aware of the significance of the date and U.S. facilities in 16 countries in Africa were operating on heightened alert that day, as well as being aware of several hundred reports indicating threats at U.S. facilities around the world.

“We were fully cognizant of the threats around that date … we had forces situated to be able to respond. We are not omnipresent or omniscient,” one official said.

Panetta has said that there was no advance notice of imminent threats to U.S. personnel or facilities in Benghazi ahead of the attack.

U.S. officials addressing claims that armed aircraft could have been sent in short notice to the scene to assist and repel attacks again said that would have been impossible to get those aircraft on scene in time.

“There were no alternative aircraft options available and those options would not have been feasible,” according to the defense official. They were not feasible, officials have told CNN, because those aircraft, an AC-130 gunship and armed drones, would have created collateral damage and most likely killed civilians in the area as well as Americans because there was no clear picture on the ground on exactly what was happening.

The timeline shows that the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi started about 9:42 p.m. local time in Libya, and about 90 minutes later a surveillance drone was over the compound, but it was unarmed.

Three hours after the attack started, Panetta and other senior leaders discussed possible options for further violence if it was to break out. Panetta then gave verbal orders for Marine anti-terrorist teams from Rota, Spain, to prepare to deploy to Tripoli and Benghazi. Panetta also ordered a special operations force (SOF) team which was training in Croatia and an additional SOF team in the United States to prepare to deploy to a staging base in southern Italy.

As U.S. troops were moving, a second U.S. compound came under attack about eight hours after the initial assault. Two former Navy SEALs acting as security contractors were killed.

Five hours later, all U.S. government employees and the bodies of the dead were out of Benghazi and in Tripoli preparing to leave Libya. The U.S. SOF team training in Europe finally arrived to their Italian staging grounds about 10 hours after the Americans left Benghazi.

About an hour after that, a Marine anti-terror team arrived in Tripoli to secure the embassy there, and 30 minutes later the U.S.-based SOF team arrived at the Italian staging ground.

Pentagon officials said the second Marine team did not deploy to Benghazi because there were no longer Americans in the city.

On Friday, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the investigation into the attacks told CNN that FBI counterintelligence agents have not yet interrogated one of the suspects.

Ali Ani al Harzi remains in the hands of the Tunisian government and investigators have not yet been given access to him, the source added.

“It’s still a work in process. Negotiations are ongoing,” the source told CNN.

The source added the investigation doesn’t hinge on getting to al Harzi alone.

The State Department has struggled with answering questions about its decision-making surrounding the attacks and said Friday that it handed over documents to Congress, which has bombarded the department with requests from committees for documents on the attack, and there could be more.

“We have now made documents available to members and staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Nuland said the department told the committees and their staff “they can see these documents as many times as they’d like to see them for as long as they’d like to see them.”

One of the senators studying the documents Friday was Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker and fellow committee member Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, had written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressing for disclosure of all communications regarding security in Benghazi leading up to the attacks.

The senators complained in their letter that cables, e-mails and other communications regarding the security situation in Benghazi “had been leaked to some Congressional offices and media outlets, resulting in conflicting reports in the press.”

Nuland denied accusations that the administration was withholding information, telling reporters, “We’ve really done our utmost under the secretary’s instructions to be fully compliant, transparent and open with the Congress.”

The documents, some of which are classified, are being provided to members of the House and Senate and their staffs who, Nuland explained, view them in rooms on Capitol Hill designated for dealing with classified information.

The State Department spokeswoman also said senior officials will be on Capitol Hill next week to brief members of Congress.

Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell will brief members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Wednesday, Kennedy and Boswell will brief members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Thursday morning, Kennedy will testify before the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee; in the afternoon, he will testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Friday morning, he will brief the Chairmen and Ranking Members from the House.

All sessions will be closed to the public, Nuland said, at the request of Congress.

Clinton will not testify. Nuland said Clinton was asked by the House Foreign Affairs Committee but the State Department wrote back to the chairman to say that she will be traveling abroad next week.

CNN’s Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt contributed to this report.