It is hard to understand why Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in discussing the US response to the attacks on two US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, offered this novel principle as a guide for US action – or inaction – during that crisis: “A basic principle is you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on.”
Of course, no such “basic principle” governs the conduct of US military personnel in Afghanistan and elsewhere, who regularly go “into harm’s way” without “knowing what’s going on,” particularly when they know that American lives are in danger.
Panetta’s comment made it inevitable that people would question – as I did myself – President Obama’s claim that “The minute I found out what was happening . . . I gave the directive 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.” If that was true, did Panetta’s comment mean that the military was disregarding a clear instruction from the president?
From what I can determine from talking with someone who has spoken directly with key general officers and others involved in the US response to the Benghazi attacks, it would appear that – contrary to Panetta’s “basic principle” – the US did almost everything possible to protect our people once the attacks had started, though not in advance:
The Consulate was overrun in a matter of minutes, before any help was possible.
A team that appears to have been CIA personnel deployed quickly (and bravely) from the Annex to the Consulate and rescued everyone they found alive there. (It’s not clear whether Ambassador Stevens had already been taken by Libyans to the hospital or whether they simply failed to find him.)
A mainly CIA response force deployed quickly from Tripoli to reinforce the Annex and facilitate its successful evacuation.
Decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been. The military’s most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but – given the distances involved – arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over.
Also, the European command (EUCOM) deployed its number one counter terrorism force, which was training in central Europe, as quickly as possible, but it arrived in Sigonella after the evacuation of the Annex was complete.
Other special forces deployed to Sigonella but arrived on the 12th after it was too late to make a difference in Benghazi.
There was no AC-130 gunship in the region.
The only drone available in Libya was an unarmed surveillance drone which was quickly moved from Darna to Benghazi, but the field of view of these drones is limited and, in any case, this one was not armed.
The only other assets immediately available were F-16 fighter jets based at Aviano, Italy. These aircraft might have reached Benghazi while the fight at the Annex was still going on, but they would have had difficulty pinpointing hostile mortar positions or distinguishing between friendly and hostile militias in the midst of a confused firefight in a densely populated residential area where there would have been a high likelihood of civilian casualties. While two more Americans were tragically killed by a mortar strike on the Annex, it’s not clear that deploying F-16’s would have prevented that. In any case, the decision not to do so was made by the tactical commander, General Ham, as it should have been.
If all of this is true, then it would appear that the US national security team was doing everything they thought possible to protect the Americans in Benghazi. There is room to debate the decision not to deploy F-16’s – they might have intimidated the attackers, even without dropping bombs – but there is no indication that anyone was following Panetta’s strange “principle.” To the contrary, armed personnel (mainly CIA) did go into harm’s way from the Annex to the Consulate and from Tripoli to Benghazi even without a clear picture of the situation.
Congress is right to be demanding answers, but I am told reliably that senior military and CIA officials would confirm the above facts. There are also other important facts that need to be clarified – particularly, the report that CIA employee and former Navy SEAL, Tyrone Woods, twice called for military help from the roof of the Annex before being killed, along with another American, by a mortar strike.
The administration has only itself to blame for its credibility problem. It is the result of a general lack of transparency and particularly of the fact that senior officials, including the president and the secretary of state, persisted for so long in offering the American people misleading suggestions that the attacks in Benghazi were a response to an obscure anti-Islamic video. But it would be prudent to wait until the facts are clearer before challenging the president’s claim that his first priority was to do “whatever we need to do” to protect Americans in danger.
In any case, there are many other things about administration policy, behavior, and conduct that deserve to be challenged, including:
- The persistent misleading comments about the motives of the attackers.
- The failure to do more in advance to respond to the evidence – including pleas by Ambassador Stevens himself – to provide better security for US facilities in Benghazi or for the Embassy in Tripoli.
- The low priority given to AFRICOM – which had hardly any forces assigned to it – despite growing evidence since the start of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya almost two years ago that the governments in those countries (particularly in Libya) were incapable of providing adequate security.
- The failure, after Qaddafi’s fall, to begin quickly training, equipping, and organizing capable Libyan forces so that the new Libyan government – which is evidently pro-American – could exercise better control over security. (To be fair, we were also slow previously in building up Afghan and Iraqi security forces, but why make the same mistake a third time?)
- The strategy of “leading from behind” during the Libyan uprising, which left the training and equipping of the Libyan opposition to governments that do not share our views about which groups should be armed – and even gave priority to Islamist militias over others.
- The current repetition of that same mistake in Syria, creating a situation where Islamist groups appear to be the ones which are best armed.
The administration has a lot to answer for, even if the facts confirm that it did its best, once the attacks began, to protect the personnel who had been endangered by its previous policy failures.