Big news if it can be substantiated, and more grist for the House Select Committee mill. Fox News’ Bret Baier and James Rosen report that US intelligence agencies knew for certain during the attack on the Benghazi consulate that it was a coordinated terrorist attack, in large part because they listened to phone conversations to terror network leaders from the attackers. That’s because those calls took place on State Department cell phones seized from the consulate, according to the pilot that flew the mission to get the survivors and bodies out of Benghazi the next day. Major Eric Stahl (USAF retired) told Baier the story, which Rosen confirmed with a second source:

The terrorists who attacked the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 used cell phones, seized from State Department personnel during the attacks, and U.S. spy agencies overheard them contacting more senior terrorist leaders to report on the success of the operation, multiple sources confirmed to Fox News.

The disclosure is important because it adds to the body of evidence establishing that senior U.S. officials in the Obama administration knew early on that Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video that had gone awry, as the administration claimed for several weeks after the attacks.

Eric Stahl, who recently retired as a major in the U.S. Air Force, served as commander and pilot of the C-17 aircraft that was used to transport the corpses of the four casualties from the Benghazi attacks – then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – as well as the assault’s survivors from Tripoli to the safety of an American military base in Ramstein, Germany.

In an exclusive interview on Fox News’ “Special Report,” Stahl said members of a CIA-trained Global Response Staff who raced to the scene of the attacks were “confused” by the administration’s repeated implication of the video as a trigger for the attacks, because “they knew during the attack…who was doing the attacking.” Asked how, Stahl told anchor Bret Baier: “Right after they left the consulate in Benghazi and went to the [CIA] safehouse, they were getting reports that cell phones, consulate cell phones, were being used to make calls to the attackers’ higher ups.”

That calls into question the explanation of the confusion that followed over the next two weeks, in which the White House insisted that the attack was a spontaneous riot over a YouTube video. Stahl expressed amazement at the story, both at the time and to this day, as the briefing he received while the attack was in progress. If this can be substantiated, then it implicates both State and Defense in the false narrative that emerged later.

But that’s not the biggest revelation Stahl delivers. He insists that had someone made the decision to relieve the Benghazi consulate early in the attack, US forces could have arrived within three hours to intervene. Furthermore, Stahl relates second-hand information that the US diplomatic corps in Libya requested a C-130 and personnel be kept on standby as early as a month before the attack in case they needed immediate evacuation, but that the request was denied.

Stahl expresses amazement again in the lack of operational readiness on the anniversary of 9/11, too:

Stahl also contended that given his crew’s alert status and location, they could have reached Benghazi in time to have played a role in rescuing the victims of the assault, and ferrying them to safety in Germany, had they been asked to do so. “We were on a 45-day deployment to Ramstein air base,” he told Fox News. “And we were there basically to pick up priority missions, last-minute missions that needed to be accomplished.”

“You would’ve thought that we would have had a little bit more of an alert posture on 9/11,” Stahl added. “A hurried-up timeline probably would take us [an] hour-and-a-half to get off the ground and three hours and fifteen minutes to get down there. So we could’ve gone down there and gotten them easily.”

Baier notes that the Accountability Review Board never interviewed Stahl for its probe into the Benghazi defeat. I’d assume Trey Gowdy will have a lot more interest in talking with Stahl — and perhaps some people in the intelligence communities who listened in on those phone calls, too. Perhaps Gowdy can start with a subpoena for the cell phone records.

Update: I wrote Baghdad once instead of Benghazi; I’ve fixed it above.