The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told, etc.), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).
And, there is "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. It was used to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the onslaught of the attack; and to explain the repeated denials to requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to the attack. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.
The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real-time, from its inception) and e-mail alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed, Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.
President Obama's national security team was being inundated, in real-time, with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article ('What really happened in Benghazi?'), William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were deployed within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died."
The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission . Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. And he was twice told to "stand down."
Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Steven's colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military back up and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.
As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people ...The president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals ...."
Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru—at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.
Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be towing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration -- one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?
On the day of the attack, numerous U.S. military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer, capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call?"
Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”
But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack -- an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists -- very well organized, armed, and trained -- who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.
We are left to wonder what transpired in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer president Obama? And although such questions are important, the over-riding question is Obama’s own role. As commander in chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous transpired -- only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.
Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of president Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. There is no evidence that the president was even in the room. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm's way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.