Were he alive today, Richard Nixon would have to doff his hat to Barack Obama. Compared with how the Obama administration has swept under the rug the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, Nixon’s attempt to cover up the Watergate burglary was rank amateurism. To be fair, Nixon’s team of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Dean were not in the same league as Obama’s, which includes not only his cabinet but most of the national media and much of Congress.
If a president were intent on covering something up—something big, such as an illegal gun walking operation to Mexico or a dereliction of duty that gets Americans killed at a diplomatic outpost in the Middle East—he would have to operate on as grand a scale as Obama has. He would have to insist that the events were caused not by what the facts showed, but something cut from whole cloth. He and his administration’s functionaries would have to hide documents and shut people up to thwart congressional oversight. And, most importantly, he’d have to have the unquestioning support of loyal minions who would lie and mislead on his behalf, or—like Susan McDougal apparently did for Bill Clinton in the Whitewater scandal—even go to jail to protect him.
The Benghazi veneer is difficult to penetrate. What began as a claim that the attack was a spontaneous response to an obscure video evolved into a centerpiece of the 2012 election and a major scandal for Obama’s administration. A poll conducted last fall showed that 62 percent of likely voters—Democrats, Republicans, and independents—believe a dedicated congressional committee should be formed to investigate the attack. Americans want to know why this happened and who, really, was behind it. They also want to know how it could have happened. A year and a half after the assault, answers are still less than forthcoming. Hearings have been conducted, testimony has been given, reports have been produced and distributed, documents have been declassified, articles and blog posts have been written, books have been published—hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of material. Yet last December, after what he called “months of reporting,” David Kirkpatrick, chief of the New York Times’s bureau in Cairo, tentatively concluded in an article that the “attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs,” that there is “no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault,” and that “contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.” In other words, we’re back in the Rose Garden again, where President Obama spoke on the morning of September 12, 2012. We’re still watching Susan Rice on the Sunday shows. We’re right where we started.
Things might even be worse than that. At least in September of 2012, Rice, now Obama’s national security advisor, agreed to broach the subject. Now she has decided it’s time for the administration—and the American people—to move on. “I don’t have time to think about a false controversy,” she told Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes in December. Similarly, Hillary Clinton—in a moment that should shadow her every day of her nascent presidential campaign—let her frustration with pesky questions show when she exploded at a Senate hearing: “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?”
Those who have watched all the hearings and waded through the reports know that months before the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, and the two former Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, U.S. intelligence agencies had been warning of possible attacks on American personnel and other assets in Benghazi. So many reports were given to the State Department that it is impossible to explain why all of them were ignored. But they were.
According to the January 15, 2014, report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (“SSCI”), those repeated warnings began with a June 12, 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report that noted growing ties between al Qaeda in the Benghazi area and local Libyan terrorists. Another report, less than a week later (June 18), said that conditions were “ripe” for more attacks and that Libya was becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists. Such reports continued in steady stream. One, in August, noted that the “safe havens” were covering more and more territory and warned that terrorist operations might even be strong enough to attack European targets from Libyan bases.
Between March and August of 2012, western targets were attacked at least 20 times in Benghazi by terrorists using increasingly powerful and sophisticated weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. Several of these assaults were directed at the convoys of foreign diplomatic personnel. On April 10, Ian Martin, in charge of the special United Nations Support Mission in Libya, survived an explosion from a homemade bomb. The convoy of Dominic Asquith, the British ambassador to Libya, was hit by a grenade on June 11. Asquith was not injured, but the United Kingdom promptly closed its mission the next day. During this period terrorists also attacked UN and Red Cross officials and detonated IEDs planted at the American Temporary Mission Facility, the headquarters of Ambassador Stevens.
In March, Eric Nordstrom, the head security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, made the first of a series of requests for increased security in the country. His requests, which continued at least into July, were not denied; they were ignored. Later, in June, Ambassador Stevens began making similar requests, which the State Department did not honor; and, as a report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence puts it, the Benghazi mission “continued to be understaffed and under-resourced.” Colonel Andrew Wood, commander of the Site Security Team (SST) at the Benghazi mission, testified in an October 10, 2012, hearing of the House Oversight Committee that three Mobile Security Deployment (MSD) teams were withdrawn from Benghazi over the course of the year despite Stevens’s repeated requests for additional security.
By the time Stevens attended an Emergency Action Committee meeting on August 15, all three of the MSD teams were gone, as was Wood’s SST. The EAC is an interagency panel that meets in embassies and other facilities around the world when those facilities face major security threats. And the Benghazi mission was certainly threatened. On August 8, Stevens sent a cable to Washington observing that “a series of violent incidents has dominated the political landscape”; he calls these incidents “targeted and indiscriminate attacks.” At the EAC meeting a CIA representative claimed that Benghazi was home to about 10 Islamist training camps, some of them al Qaeda affiliated. At the same meeting, an unnamed “regional security officer” said that he was concerned—justifiably, it turned out—about the mission’s ability to defend itself.
About 60 armed terrorists entered the mission unimpeded at 9:42 p.m. on September 11, 2012. They set fire to the barracks holding Libyan militia troops, who were supposedly acting as a “security force,” and, minutes later, set fire to the building where Ambassador Stevens was. One of the five Diplomatic Security Service agents on duty immediately relayed the situation to the nearby CIA Annex, the embassy in Tripoli, and the State Department in Washington. Stevens was moved to a “safe room.”
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya, received a call from Stevens five minutes later, and the ambassador told him the consulate was under attack. Hicks later told the press that he and everyone else in the Libya mission believed it was a terrorist attack “from the get go.” At about that time, a security team based in Tripoli consisting of seven men—at least two of them Delta Force operators—was ordered to Benghazi. It had to charter an aircraft to fly there, and didn’t arrive at the Benghazi airport until about 1:15 a.m. It spent three hours negotiating with Libyans for transportation and a security escort to get to the Annex.
The DSS agent who had put Stevens in the “safe room” stationed himself outside it. When the fire and smoke forced him to move, he lost track of the ambassador. Capturing Stevens alive may have been the terrorists’ main objective. Whether they intended to take him alive or not, he seems to have been killed within the first 20 minutes of the attack. According to the SSCI report, none of the DSS agents fired a shot that night.
By about 11:30 p.m., the annex security team, accompanied by the survivors of the mission, retreated in two armored vehicles, to the annex. At roughly the same time, a Predator reconnaissance drone arrived over the mission and began transmitting intelligence to the Pentagon, and probably to the CIA and State Department as well.
According to Greg Hicks, reports began to filter in at about 12:30 a.m.—via Twitter—that the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group—an al Qaeda affiliate—was claiming credit for the attacks.
Beginning between midnight and 2 a.m., Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began ordering other military assets to prepare for intervention. Panetta ordered two Marine FAST (Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team) platoons to Libya from Rota, Spain. One was to go to the rescue of the annex, but it failed to arrive until about 9 p.m. on September 12, a full day after the attacks. The second unit wouldn’t have arrived for another 72 hours, according to the SSCI report.
In addition, between midnight and 2 a.m., Panetta ordered special operations units in from Croatia. But they also couldn’t arrive in time.
At about midnight, the annex was fired upon in a small arms and RPG attack that lasted about an hour. At 4:30 a.m. the seven-man team from Tripoli left for the annex. Upon arriving, they immediately began to assist in its defense. A former SEAL with knowledge of the situation told TAS that the security team inflicted a large number of casualties on the attackers.
The final attack came at about 5:15 a.m. Mortar fire took the lives of Glenn Dougherty and Tyrone Woods, who were on the roof of the building, defending it. (One of the Delta Force operators, MSgt. David Halbruner, received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in that fight. Another, rumored to be a Marine, may have received the Navy Cross. Both honors are second only to the Medal of Honor.)
According to the SSCI report, “The mortar fire was particularly accurate, demonstrating a lethal capability and sophistication that changed the dynamic on the ground that night.” In less than an hour, all were evacuated from the annex. Stevens’s body, recovered from a hospital, and all the other living and dead Americans left Benghazi at about 10:00 a.m.
The SSCI has concluded that the attacks “were deliberate and organized, but that their lethality and efficacy did not necessarily indicate extensive planning.” Which is to say that the attacks, whatever the specific motivation behind them, were simply not a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim video. That supports the conclusion of a former Navy ordinance expert we spoke to within about 48 hours of the attacks, who told us that the mortar attack could not have been accomplished by random demonstrators.
The bottom line is that the attacks went on for just a few minutes short of eight hours. But according to the Obama administration, the Americans initially under fire were beyond any help our military could have provided.
What makes Benghazi so exasperating is the fact that it involves two scandals. The first is the scandal of the attack that left dead four Americans whose lives might have been saved had they received the level of security that they deserved—and indeed requested. The second, intimately bound up in the first, is the scandal of the Obama administration’s response to their deaths.
When the attacks occurred the 2012 presidential election was less than eight weeks away—a problem given Obama’s campaign narrative that the dangers of terrorism were a thing of the past. Remember Joe Biden’s trope that “al Qaeda is dead and GM is alive”?
Lucky for President Obama, Mitt Romney supported American intervention in Libya, too, which left him unable to raise the obvious point that there would have been no Americans in Benghazi to be killed if Obama hadn’t foolishly put them there. Having wrongly decided that America had a national security interest in helping France topple Gaddafi, Obama’s mistake was compounded by the decision to put American diplomats in a city that was known to be a safe haven for terrorists. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, knew or should have known of the security problems in Benghazi and had the responsibility to correct them. Romney wouldn’t point any of this out, and Obama certainly couldn’t admit it. Which is why—pace, Candy Crowley—Obama didn’t say on September 12, 2012, that it was a terrorist attack. Instead, in his Rose Garden remarks, the president talked about our unshakeable ties to Libya (of which our history is bereft) and said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
On September 14, 2012, three days after the attacks, a memorial service was held for Sean Smith at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. President Obama and Hillary Clinton both spoke at the service. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Smith’s mother Pat said that Obama, Clinton, and Susan Rice had each told her at the service that the cause of the attacks was the anti-Muslim video. The following day, the CIA prepared talking points for the House and Senate Intelligence committees. As originally drafted, they included references to al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia, and they referred to “attacks,” not protests. They also detailed the previous attacks on foreign interests in Benghazi. Those references were expurgated. The party responsible is unknown, but a good bet would be on the White House. According to the SSCI report, then-CIA Director David Petraeus wrote in an email that the White House national security staff had the final word on the talking points. The people responsible may well have been those identified in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent memoir Duty as having made decisions based on politics rather than the national interest: then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Army Lt. Gen. Doug Lute..
At that time, the Obama administration knew what the CIA knew: that there were terrorist camps in Benghazi, that the security of the mission was perfunctory, and that Stevens had been asking for reinforcements. It knew what Greg Hicks knew: The attacks were an organized, terrorist effort. It also knew that Ansar al-Sharia had apparently claimed credit for the attack, that Ansar is tied to al Qaeda, and that the accuracy of the mortar attack on the annex could not have been the work of untrained men.
Five days after the attacks, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice went on five Sunday talk shows and said the attacks were spontaneous, not premeditated, the response to an offensive anti-Muslim video.
The White House insisted that she relied on the CIA talking points, leaving out the fact that they had been watered down to delete references to terrorist involvement.
A few weeks later, Darrell Issa held a hearing of the House Government Oversight Committee. Many expected Issa to blow the lid off the Benghazi scandal. Though Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb claimed, erroneously, that there had been adequate security resources in Benghazi, these hearings went nowhere. Were requests made for additional security or not? The story was not kept straight. During the vice-presidential debate on October 11, Joe Biden made the absurd claim that budget cuts had made responding to Stevens’s requests impossible and that the requests had never been received in the first place.
After the election leak followed leak, but the administration stonewalled any serious investigation. The half-hearted effort of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board led the way. Convened by Hillary Clinton and led by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, the ARB came to nothing, or at least nothing much. According a source close to the State Department who tried to approach the ARB about the security laxity in Benghazi, the board was dismissive and really didn’t want to know. Its December 12, 2012, report harrumphed gravely, finding that systematic failures in State Department management and leadership (meaning exercised by people far below Hillary in rank) led to the inadequate security in Benghazi. It downplayed decisions made by higher-ups such as Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who exchanged a memo in 2011 titled “Future of Operations in Benghazi, Libya” which states in part, “I would like to maintain a small State-run presence in Benghazi through the end of calendar year 2012, to include the critical summer elections period.…With the full complement of five Special Agents, our permanent presence would include eight U.S. direct hire employees…” Kennedy remains at the State Department. Feltman, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, moved to a ranking position at the UN in June 2012. He ought to be invited to tell what he knows to Congress.
Further, CIA employees knowledgeable about the Benghazi attacks have been subjected to monthly polygraph examinations—far more often than usual—to prove that they haven’t leaked anything to the press or Congress. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has asked for testimony from survivors of the attacks, but the number—and identity—of respondents remains classified.
Security videos show that there was no demonstration before the attacks, which suggests that the anti-video protest story is a complete fiction. A former senior Navy officer says that EA-18G “Growler” aircraft were fueled and on the ramp in Sigonella, Italy, about 40 minutes’ flying time at Mach 0.7 from Benghazi. Though unarmed, the Growlers could have provided reconnaissance (in addition to that being done by the Prowler) within an hour or two of the 9:40 pm attack. Why weren’t they ordered in?
There were other aircraft—F-15s and more—at our airbase in Aviano, Italy, that could have been alerted. Even if it took an hour to gather intelligence and arm the aircraft, even if they had to land at Sigonella to quickly refuel because no tankers were available, they could have arrived long before the 5 a.m. attack on the annex. A single armed F-15 could have put a quick stop to the attacks. But no such orders came. There is simply no excuse for inaction. When Americans are under fire, our military has a moral obligation to fly into the fight as fast as it can. The administration tried to excuse inaction by saying it did not have Libyan permission to cross the border with armed aircraft or troops. In cases such as these, it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission.
What the American people haven't heard is the testimony of the survivors. One of them reportedly spoke before a classified hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Another special operator—who one source told us was still receiving medical assistance at the National Military Medical Center in late 2013—could be located and his testimony obtained.
The SSCI report includes a section for comments by Republican lawmakers, who cite “significant and sustained” resistance by the State Department to SSCI’s efforts to obtain documents, access witnesses, and answer questions. They claim that the State Department “swiftly asserted questionable jurisdictional objections and resisted full cooperation with our review” despite the fact that the attacks were made against intelligence community personnel and the fact that the SSCI jurisdiction cuts across committee jurisdiction whenever intelligence matters are concerned.
General Martin Dempsey, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is specifically criticized by the SSCI for deficiencies in command. The report admits that the Pentagon cannot plan to rescue anyone from any embassy at any time, but states that given the terrorist presence in Benghazi and the inadequate security there (not to mention the importance of the date), Dempsey is guilty of “…either a profound inability or a clear unwillingness to prevent problems before they arise.”
And what of the president? We still don’t know where Obama was or what he was doing on the night of the attacks. To repeat a familiar phrase, what did the president know, and when did he know it? How did he react? Did he make any decisions, and if so what were they? If not, why not?
So far the Obama administration hasn’t claimed executive privilege to protect people and documents. They haven’t had to, because Congress, a few indefatigable individuals excepted, has had the attention span of a guppy.
Soon after the attacks, Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf introduced HR-36, a bill to create a House Select Committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks. Under Wolf’s bill, the special committee would have subpoena power and could force the issue of testimony and access to documents. If it did, we might yet see Obama exercise Executive Privilege just as he did in the “Fast and Furious” scandal. The bill has 177 sponsors, almost enough to pass the House today. The only problem is that House Speaker John Boehner won’t allow the bill to come to the floor. He has repeatedly blocked it from consideration. Without leaders interested in the truth, the American public will never find out, not now, not in the history books, just what happened on September 11, 2012. Nor, on present trends, will they find out why they can’t find out.