NEW YORK -- U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, provided reporters Thursday with the most detailed explanation yet of the CIA's presence in Benghazi, Libya, and the agency's response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, while also identifying the two former Navy SEALs killed that night as being employed by the CIA.
But some news organizations, including the Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post, already knew that the two former SEALs -- Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- were working for the CIA and had agreed not to publish the information at the government's request.
While AP, the Times and the Post held back this detail following an official request, reporters at other news outlets may also have known or assumed the men were not security contractors given the nature of their work in Libya. ABC News, for example, reported that Doherty had been working to "round up dangerous weapons" in the country. One national security reporter told The Huffington Post that it was an "open secret" in national security circles that the former SEALs were working for the CIA.
However, that detail wasn't widely reported or, if it was, was quickly pulled back .
On Sept. 21, AP reported that Doherty and Woods "were in Libya on contract with the CIA," but removed the line in later versions of the story and didn't describe the men's status in that way again until after Thursday's briefing.
"We omitted mention of the two former SEALs' CIA connection in subsequent versions of the story after CIA officials insisted that other lives would be endangered," AP spokesman Paul Colford said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Over the past six weeks, the Benghazi compound has been primarily described as a consulate or diplomatic mission, even though it's now being reported that just seven of the more than 30 people evacuated from the city were working for the State Department. As The Wall Street Journal wrote Thursday night, "the U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation."
And now it's clear the former SEALs killed that night were not part of a security detail for U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who also died in the attack, but were working for the CIA -- a fact that, if presented earlier, might have helped reframe the murky narrative from an attack on a diplomatic mission to an attack on a location primarily used for intelligence gathering.
It's not as if news organizations before Thursday had ignored the CIA's presence in Benghazi in covering the attack and its aftermath.
On Sept. 23, The New York Times reported that the Benghazi attack was a "major blow" to the CIA's intelligence gathering efforts in Libya. The Times wrote that there were "about a dozen CIA operatives and contractors" working at the site of the attack.
However, the Times didn't report that the former SEALs were with the CIA, while acknowledging that the paper had "agreed to withhold locations and details of these operations at the request of Obama administration officials, who said that disclosing such information could jeopardize future sensitive government activities and put at risk American personnel working in dangerous settings."
Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told The Huffington Post that the paper "did get this request from the CIA and honored it because of the safety concerns they raised." She said, "Doing so did not impact our ability to tell the broader story about how the CIA's operations were severely impacted by this attack."
The Washington Post also held back reporting Woods and Doherty's CIA role at the agency's request, according to a source familiar with the decision. Post National Editor Kevin Merida confirmed receiving that request and explained the decision-making process involved.
"We learned shortly after the Sept. 11 incident that two of the dead were CIA employees and that the agency maintained a base in Benghazi," Merida said in an email to The Huffington Post. "We agreed to withhold this information because the government argued that publication could endanger American lives and facilities. When intelligence officials yesterday identified Woods and Doherty, we made the decision to identify the annex as the agency base and informed the agency that we would do so."
In the past, news organizations, including the Post, the Times and AP, have honored similar government requests to withhold information in order to ensure the safety of a CIA agent (or agents worldwide). In February 2011, several U.S. outlets acknowledged having not reported that a "consulate employee" arrested in Pakistan was working for the CIA. The Guardian, a British newspaper, later broke the news, and the U.S. government took back its request.
It's understandable that editors would honor the CIA's request to hold back a detail for security reasons. But doing so cedes control of that information to the government, which can release such details on its own terms and when politically expedient. The U.S. intelligence officials' Thursday background briefing was put together just as the agency was facing more questions following a Fox News report that agents were told to stand down during the attack and as The Wall Street Journal prepared to publish its investigative piece on the CIA's role.
The CIA did not respond to a request for comment.