Politics & Policy

Benghazi: Obama Emerges from the Fog of War

At Andrews Air Force Base, on the return of the remains of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, September 14, 2012
If Obama ordered the military to “secure our personnel,” where is the order?

Our ambassador to Libya was killed in our own consulate in Benghazi on the night of September 11. For the next six weeks, President Obama repeated the same talking point: The morning after the attack, he ordered increased security in our embassies in the region.

Suddenly, on the campaign trail in Denver on October 26, he changed his story. “The minute I found out what was happening . . . I gave the directive,” he said, “to make sure we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to do. I guarantee you everybody in the CIA and military knew the number-one priority was making sure our people are safe.”

Notice the repeated use of the present tense, implying that he gave the order during the attack. Mr. Obama met with his national-security team, including the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at 5:00 p.m. Washington time. For over an hour, the consulate staff had been constantly reporting that they were under assault by terrorists and Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing in action. In the White House, group-think leads to the mistaken assumption that the attackers are a spontaneous mob.

An hour after the attack has begun, the president orders the CIA and the military to do “whatever we need to do.” Yet the CIA and the military do nothing, except send drones overhead to watch the seven-hour battle. A CIA employee and former Navy SEAL, Tyrone Woods, twice calls for military help. He has a laser rangefinder and is pinpointing enemy targets, radioing the coordinates. The military send no aircraft to attack the designated targets. Special Operations forces standing by, 480 miles away — less than a two-hour plane ride — are not deployed.

#ad#Secretary of Defense Panetta later explained that this passivity was in keeping with a rule of warfare. “A basic principle,” he said on October 25, “is 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.”

Rarely has a spontaneous mob so thoroughly intimidated our nation. And so much for sending our squads out every day in Afghanistan on patrol, when they don’t know what’s going on. The next time a platoon is told to take an objective, some corporal will say, “SecDef says we don’t have to go into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on.”

Apart from the questionable philosophy of turning battle into a poker game where all cards are face up before anyone places a bet, Mr. Panetta ignored the fact that the former SEAL on the ground was giving real-time information to everyone listening in at least eight operations centers (the embassy in Tripoli, State, White House, Pentagon, CIA, Special Operations Command, Africa Command, and the National Ops Center).

The SecDef and the president have issued contradictory explanations. Either Mr. Obama ordered the Secretary of Defense to “do whatever we need to do,” or he didn’t. And either the secretary obeyed that order, or he didn’t. And he didn’t.

It is also not clear whether the SecDef countermanded the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is the direct military adviser to the president. Did the president as commander-in-chief issue an unequivocal order that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs received but chose not to execute? Or did the chairman reply that he would do nothing?

Yet the general in charge of the Africa region has allegedly said he received no directive from Washington to dispatch military aid. Members of the mutual protective society of generals are offering the bizarre defense that our Africa Command could do nothing because it has no military assets; it’s some sort of ghost command. Even if that is true, the most powerful nation in the world has sufficient forces and flexibility to send fighter aircraft over a consulate in flames, or to land some troops at the secure airport east of Benghazi. After all, our embassy in Tripoli, 400 miles away, sent an aircraft with six Americans to fight in Benghazi. But our base in Sigonella, 480 miles away, sent no help.

If General Dempsey had concluded that the U.S. military should do nothing, he would have reported his decision not to act back to his commander-in-chief before the latter went to bed to rest up for his campaign trip to Las Vegas the next day. After all, the ambassador was still missing. And brave Tyrone Woods was to die in a mortar attack five hours later. President Obama would naturally be more than a bit interested in why the military and the CIA did nothing after he explicitly ordered them “to make sure we are securing our personnel.”

Surely it is in the president’s best interests to release a copy of his order, which the military would have sent to hundreds in the chain of command. And if the president did not direct the NSC “to do whatever we need to do,” then who was in charge? When the American ambassador is attacked and remains out of American hands for over seven hours as a battle rages — and our military sends no aid — either the crisis-response system inside the White House is incompetent, or top officials are covering up. 

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, is co-author with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer of Into the Fire: A First-Hand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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