No doubt Bill O’Reilly came away from his Super Bowl Sunday interview with Barack Obama feeling pleased with himself for setting a combative tone. In fact, the interview was a big missed opportunity. O’Reilly let several obvious inaccuracies on the president’s part slide by him. And he failed to ask one big question about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that has gone unanswered for 16 months.
Where was the commander-in-chief on the night of Sept. 11, 2012? Why did he go AWOL after learning that an all-out attack had been launched on the compound with the apparent objective of capturing or killing J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and a number of other Americans who were there with him?
To recall the sequence of events on this long and terror-filled night:
With a time difference of six hours between the two places, the attack on the consulate began at 9:42 p.m. in Benghazi, which was 3:42 p.m. in Washington, D.C. At 5 p.m., or a little more than an hour later, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey met with Obama at the White House and told him that the consulate was under fire.
According to Panetta (in Congressional testimony in February, 2013), the president told them that the response to the attack was “up to them.” And that was it. Panetta testified that he and the general had no further contact that night with the president — or, for that matter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After overrunning the compound, the several dozen attackers set buildings ablaze — causing Stevens and information officer Sean Smith to die of smoke inhalation in the so-called “safe house.”
Two other Americans (former Navy SEALS and American security guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty) were killed by mortar fire in another battle at a different location that took place six to seven hours later — at around 5 a.m. in Benghazi, or 11 p.m. in Washington, D.C.
Woods and Doherty had been part of a six-man response team that rushed to the consulate from a nearby CIA annex at 10 p.m. Benghazi time. The team recovered Sean Smith’s body and rescued others, before returning the annex, about a mile from the consulate, followed by some of the original attackers. The annex came under attack shortly after midnight and again, more seriously, at 5 a.m.
What was Obama doing as all this was going on?
It’s a shame that O’Reilly did not put that simple question to the president. And it’s a shame that he did not do a better job of pointing out the falsity of the administration’s claims in the following days and weeks blaming the attack (as Obama put it) on “some shadowy character” in the U.S. who had produced a video offensive to Muslims.
Instead, O’Reilly got into this rather senseless exchange with the president over what Panetta said in the 5 p.m. meeting:
O’Reilly: Did he (Panetta) tell you it was a terrorist attack?
Obama: You know what he told me was that there was an attack on our compound.
O’Reilly: … He didn’t use the word “terror”?
Obama: You know, in — in the heat of the moment, Bill, what folks are focused on is what’s happening all the ground, so we have eyes on it, how we can make sure our folks are secure.
There is no reason to expect we will ever know whether Panetta used the T-word. But we do have the testimony of Stevens’ #2 in Libya — Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission, who said that he knew from the start that this was a terrorist attack. As he testified in Congress on May 8, 2013, he and others at the embassy in Tripoli saw Twitter feeds asserting that Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda affiliate, was taking credit for the attack. He also testified that he believed the administration could and should have mounted a rescue mission to save the two former SEALs.
Why was there no serious discussion — including and indeed led by the command-in-chief — of mounting a rescue operation? I may add here that several hours passed between the initiation of the attack and confirmation that the ambassador had been killed.
Having personally briefed Hillary Clinton and her team by phone on the night of the attack (at 2 a.m. his time, 8 p.m. her time), Hicks said that he was shocked when Susan Rice went on Sunday talk shows a few days later and blamed the attack on the video. “I was stunned,” Hicks said. “My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.”
Fox News has done outstanding reporting on Benghazi. But O’Reilly did zero, nada, nothing to advance the ball. He was as a big a dud on Super Bowl Sunday as Peyton Manning. And he (who makes the “No Spin Zone” boast) was up against a far more vulnerable opponent.