Over the weekend, another element of Benghazi fiasco was revealed to a public that has been forced to sift through several disparate narratives to get to the truth. The U.S. military had an unmanned Predator drone flying over the Benghazi consulate during the attack that claimed the life of ambassador Christopher Stevens, Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and agent Sean Smith. That drone, as well as “other reconnaissance aircraft” seemingly observed what is now being characterized as the “final hours of the protracted battle.” How protracted? It has now been revealed that the last two Americans weren’t killed until more than six hours after the attack began.
Yet even as this information has been revealed, the State Department, White House, and Pentagon have refused to say what options might have been available. According to CBS News, a White House official revealed that, when the attack began, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “looked at available options, and the ones we exercised had our military forces arrive in less than 24 hours, well ahead of timelines laid out in established policies.”
That’s a remarkable admission, one that reeks of a bureaucratic mindset in which the execution of four Americans is seemingly mitigated in some fashion by the fact that “established policies” were followed. Retired CIA officer Gary Berntsen wasn’t buying that excuse. “You find a way to make this happen,” Berntsen contended. “There isn’t a plan for every single engagement. Sometimes you have to be able to make adjustments. They made zero adjustments in this. They stood and they watched and our people died.”
The Pentagon said it moved a team of special operators from Central Europe to Sigonella, Italy—about an hour flight from Libya—but offered up no other details. Other nearby bases include Aviano and Souda Bay. Military sources told CBS News that resources at the three bases include fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships. The sources told CBS such aircraft can be extremely effective dispersing mobs. Yet Rick Nelson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Navy pilot who worked in counter-terrorism, contended that such missions have a high element of risk. “A lot can go well, right, as we saw with the bin Laden raid. It was a very successful event,” he says. “But also, when there are high risk activities like this, a lot can go wrong, as we saw with the Iranian hostage rescue decades ago.”
Undoubtedly Mr. Nelson is correct, especially regarding the Iranian hostage crisis. But the failure of that 1980 operation, in which eight Americans were killed was precipitated by the reality that, though it was bungled, President Jimmy Carter at least made an effort to rescue the 52 American hostages that been held in Tehran since the previous November. That effort is perceived by many as having cost Jimmy Carter re-election. Thus, an exceedingly uncomfortable question arises with respect to the reality that, despite being only an hour away, the military ultimately decided against conducting a similar operation to rescue Stevens:
Did Barack Obama weigh his own re-election chances against the possibility of a failed rescue mission?
The story about the drones came out only a day after newly released cables revealed that Stevens had repeatedly pleaded with the State Department officials to augment his security team in Libya. One of those cables, dated June 25, 2012, revealed Stevens’ concerns about “an increase in attacks targeting international organizations and foreign interests.” An August 8, 2012 cable revealed that “Since the eve of the (July) elections, Benghazi has moved from trepidation to euphoria and back as a series of violent incidents has dominated the political landscape during the Ramadan holiday.” He further noted that Libya’s transitional government, the Supreme Security Council, “has not coalesced into a stabilizing force and provides little deterrence.”
House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations, say they’ve “been told repeatedly” that the Obama administration not only “repeatedly reject(ed) requests for increased security despite escalating violence, but it also systematically decreased existing security to dangerous and ineffective levels,” and did so “to effectuate a policy of ‘normalization’ in Libya after the conclusion of its civil war.” The Congressmen further reveal that Eric Nordstrom, Regional Security Officer of the Libyan Embassy, told them that “the State Department routinely made decisions about security in early 2012 without first consulting him.”
As damnable as much of this is, it is also beside the point. the central point is that time the Bengahzi story “evolved” it was because one official or another had based his or her assertion on information available at the time. For example, Rice’s assertion that the attack was “spontaneous” was reportedly based on talking points provided by the CIA. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama peddled the “offensive video” story on various occasions. Ultimately, Mrs. Clinton blamed the conflicting information on the “fog of war” immediately preceding the second presidential debate—at which President Obama, with a little back-up from moderator Candy Crowley, confidently asserted that what was seemingly a generic reference to terror at his Rose Garden speech on September 12th, was actually an admission that the assault in Benghazi was indeed a terrorist attack. (One the Commander-in-Chief took so “seriously” that he apparently felt comfortable leaving all the follow-up of that attack to other members of his administration while he attended a fund-raiser in Las Vegas, two days later).
Yet we now know that, at the very least, two of the highest members in the military chain of command, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, were aware of what was unfolding in Benghazi as it actually happened. We also know that a decision was made to abandon Mr. Stevens and three other Americans to their attackers, based on risk assessments the State Department, White House and Pentagon refuse to make available to the public.
Who made that decision? It certainly seems unlikely that either Mr. Panetta or Gen. Dempsey would be willing to shoulder that responsibility themselves. It also seems reasonable to assume that at some point, in a battle that reportedly lasted for “more than six hours,” those watching the firefight unfolding had to realize what few forces we had on the ground were being overwhelmed. It is equally reasonable to assume that someone higher up the chain of command, as in the president himself, would have at least been advised of that deterioration.
Was the president advised? If so, then his claim that he labeled Benghazi an act of terror a day later in the Rose Garden is valid. Yet that claim then raises subsequent questions. Did Barack Obama make the decision to abandon Mssrs. Stevens, Doherty, Woods and Smith to the “tender mercies” of terrorist savages? Or did he tell Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey to deal with debacle as they saw fit—or follow “timelines laid out in established policies?”
Tonight’s presidential debate presents a wonderful opportunity for Mr. Obama to clarify what he knew, and when he knew it, in this regard. Here’s hoping he gets presented with that opportunity—whether he wants it or not.
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