This weekend, while pondering the recent revelations that explicit calls for military help may have been rejected, I realized the media has been misunderstanding the basic lines of authority that were likely in place in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. If those lines of authority were conventional, then on that night it is highly likely that Hillary Clinton did all she could while Barack Obama — who controlled vastly more resources — did nothing effective.
Now, I’m not at all excusing State Department decision-making that left the Benghazi compound ridiculously vulnerable or the State Department’s spin after the attack. Instead, I’m focusing on the events of that night — the subject of the most recent revelations that someone rejected urgent calls for military help.
To fully understand the various accounts of the battle, one has to understand the concept of “assets,” “responsibility,” and “command authority.” For example, a military commander may be responsible for a particular battle space, but only has command authority over very specific military assets. In Iraq, my squadron commander was responsible for a 17,000 square kilometer section of Diyala Province, but only had command authority over a specific set of assets — a “squadron minus” of armored cavalry (we left a tank company up in Mosul) plus various attached soldiers and teams. If these assets were insufficient, he had to specifically appeal to higher headquarters for help, and higher headquarters would approve or reject the request.
In a mixed civilian/military environment, the situation becomes more complex. For example, at various points in our deployment, U.N. negotiating teams would arrive to try to broker peace agreements between competing tribes. They had their own security, and the head of that security team was responsible for the safety of the U.N. negotiators, but if his team was overmatched, he’d appeal for help to my commander — as the on-scene military commander responsible for the battle space and with command authority over necessary assets to respond to a crisis.
Clear as mud? Thankfully, in our case the U.N. never had to make the call for help — in large part because we escorted the negotiators with heavy armor. The insurgents never launched an attack.
With that framework in place, let’s go back to Benghazi. While the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security assumes responsibility for “providing a safe and secure environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” that does not mean that it necessarily has command authority over the necessary assets to accomplish its mission. In other words, if an embassy is under attack, the State Department doesn’t suddenly command aircraft carriers, fighter groups, or infantry battalions. The military chain of command doesn’t suddenly become a State Department chain of command. Instead, if an embassy or diplomatic compound is under attack, and State Department forces are insufficient to repel the attack or secure embassy personnel, then the State Department has to appeal to a separate command structure and ask that it deploy those assets under its command authority to assist — such as the host country’s military or our own.
International law assigns primary responsibility for diplomatic security to the host country, but Libya was not capable of meeting that responsibility. So — if current reports can be believed — we appealed to our own military for help. Here’s the critical point: The decision to proactively use military force in a sovereign country that we are not at war with or in is typically a decision reserved to the National Command Authority alone. (The National Command Authority is the president acting in concert with — but in command of — the Secretary of Defense). Unless this decision has been delegated to a lower command, this is the president’s call to make. Period.
So far we have been provided with a fairly precise accounting of how the State Department deployed its very limited assets to respond to the Benghazi attack, and that account makes for harrowing reading. In short, while there were too few assets in place to help, the State Department threw everyone into the breach — even sending small teams to engage the terrorists without air cover and without heavy weapons. Those men — American and Libyan — by all accounts exhibited bravery most Americans can scarcely comprehend. It wasn’t quite the Alamo or Little Big Horn (thankfully), but they exhibited bravery against overwhelming odds in keeping with the best of American martial traditions. The call came, and the State Department answered with what little it had. It was not enough.
But where is the Department of Defense’s corresponding account of that night? There is little doubt it has already compiled an account at least as comprehensive as the State Department’s — and this account details (a) when the military learned of the attack; (b) the military’s state of situational awareness hour by hour; (c) whether it received any requests for help; (d) what assets — if any — were available to render aid in time; (e) what recommendations were made; (f) whether any definitive orders were given; and (g) who gave them. Make no mistake: That information is currently available, already compiled, and can be released (even if in heavily redacted form to protect classified assets).
Yet here’s our Secretary of Defense’s incomplete and unsatisfactory response:
“(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,” Panetta told Pentagon reporters. “And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
His “basic principle” is simply false. We deploy forces all the time in our theaters of war without good real-time information. All. The. Time. If we didn’t, far more men would die. The fog of war never fully clears, and our solution has been to typically go in with sufficient force to deal with virtually any reasonable contingency. But the truly revealing part of the response is here: “General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.” To military ears those are not the words of a man who made a decision; those are the words of a man who made a recommendation. A decision-maker follows his strong feeling with an order: to stand down or decline the request for help. A recommender passes his feeling up the chain of command — in this case, to the president of the United States.
The State Department answered the call with what force it had. The military did not. Either we did not have assets to answer (and that would be a different kind of scandal) or someone made the decision to — in effect — hang up on the 3:00 a.m. caller. Who made that call and why? The military already knows. So should the American people.