Of the many battles over the facts of the Benghazi attack and the administration’s response, few are as contentious as the alleged existence of a “stand-down order” that prevented U.S. special operators from responding as quickly as they could to the jihadist assault. Through sloppy reporting (and sloppy Congressional investigations), news outlets — and even movie reviewers — repeat the claim that Congress found “no evidence” that rescuers were told to stand-down. Yet that’s not precisely correct.
There is abundant evidence — in the form of testimony from multiple, credible individuals — that the CIA officer in charge at Benghazi told special operators to “stand down.” He strongly disputes that characterization, instead saying that any delays were minimal and due not to a stand-down orders but rather to the process of securing equipment and vehicles and to attempts to secure local militia assistance. There is much less evidence of a stand-down order from Washington or of such an order in Tripoli — at least one that would have prevented American help from arising on a timely basis. But it would be odd indeed if Washington was immediately micro-managing the emerging and confusing firefight in Benghazi.
The stand-down order controversy is also often confused with the question of whether American military forces — including our significant air assets in Italy — could have been used to support the outmanned and outgunned operators on the ground. Administration officials strenuously deny that they withheld any available support, with Leon Panetta claiming that the Department of Defense “employed every asset at our disposal that could have been used to help save lives of our American colleagues.” A House Intelligence Committee report also absolved the military of claims that it refused help.
But here there’s a scandal in either direction. If military assets were deliberately withheld from Americans under fire, the scandal is obvious. But it is also scandalous if our considerable military forces in the region were simply not ready to respond to an urgent request for help. After all, it’s not as if Libya was a model of stability, and it was well-known that Islamic militias were escalating attacks on western interests. It’s incumbent on the world’s most powerful military to maintain sufficient assets at the ready to respond to emergencies in a highly volatile region.
The Benghazi controversy is the story of three great failures — the failure to either fortify or evacuate Benghazi when threats increased, the failure to adequately protect and support American personnel during the attack itself, and the repeated lies told the American public after the attack to minimize both the nature of the jihadist threat and the scale of the administration’s incompetence. The film won’t resolve complex political arguments over individual fault, but (if it does justice to the book — I’m seeing it tonight) it will show the deadly consequences of ideologically-motivated blindness and wishful thinking. Americans fought like lions against overwhelming odds. Their valor was awe-inspiring, but it never should have been necessary.