Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Distrust but verify

Image Credit: US Navy (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

Image Credit: US Navy (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

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.

46 thoughts on “Distrust but verify

  1. Excellent review Paul. Glad to see someone put all the information into a logical and reasonable order, without the emotional vitriol. Too many are taking small and disconnected tidbits of information and turning it into a planet sized paraniod schizophrenic and conspiratorial talking point for their next book.

    I’ve recently had to post this in response to the barrage of ignorance and willful blindness by some over the Benghazi problem,…

    “It pisses me off that we have had more than 4000 of our brave patriotic young men and women killed in the middle east. It pisses me off that we lost four more outstanding Americans in Benghazi. But it pisses me off even more that any good American, whether veteran or otherwise, would ever think, suggest, promote or imply that another American, our American leaders at any level of our government, would willfully, callously, maliciously and deliberately turn their backs on other Americans and let them die without having done everything possible to protect their lives. It’s beyond belief. It’s beyond reason. We may never know the whole truth of what happened in Benghazi, but I feel very confident in saying that every effort was made to do the right thing given the local and regional situation. But rest assured….this continual political grandstanding by some rightwing political talking heads about the deaths of those outstanding America’s in Benghazi while neglecting the other 4000 plus is not helping your cause.”

    • That’s all fine and good Tim except for the ever changing and conflicting stories flowing out of the administration. And we have a precedent with Fast & Furious that has been smothered by an EO by the guy that swears he never heard of it.

    • Tim we do already know the Administration did not do all they could have done to provide security prior to the attack. Maybe you should have watched the hearing. Not a far fetched idea they would have totally failed to act during the attack. Lt. Col. Wood was very clearly disturbed at the failure before the attack even began. There was no super secret reason to skimp on security beforehand huh? Why do you assume there was afterwards with zero evidence?

    • “But it pisses me off even more that any good American…would ever…imply that…American leaders…would…deliberately turn their backs on other Americans and let them die without having done everything possible to protect their lives. It’s beyond belief. It’s beyond reason.”

      Your view of Homo Politicus is dangerously naive. Remember that this administration said that the decision to take out Bin Laden was a “gutsy call”.

      Their unwillingness to not act is not beyond belief or reason. It is typical of this administration.

  2. I hope you’re right that we did all that we could. I don’t want to believe that President Obama, someone I disagree with politically, would be so careless with human lives as to do nothing while they fought desperately for their lives.

    I don’t want to believe that about any American of any political ideology. If that is the case; however, President Obama’s unwillingness to clear things up concisely seems an indictment of sorts. If things happened as the claims depict that they happened, then President Obama isn’t really at fault and should have gone ahead and revealed the facts. The cover-up implies guilt.

    It seems too convenient that the Special Forces were deployed on the 12th rather than before that. Why risk having American soldiers and sailors in the air on September 11th when terrorist activity is more likely?

    If there was no AC-130 Gunship in the region where did the rumor come from? Where was the closest one? Why wasn’t there one? Iraq is about 1652 miles from Libya, we didn’t have any air support that could have made that distance within a reasonable amount of time? Nothing near Syria? It all seems rather convenient.

    And let’s not forget our submarine capability. We have submarines that can launch missiles and deploy Seal teams. If there was a submarine in the area which is likely (but top secret) they could have gone in and wreaked havoc on the terrorists.

    If all that could be done was done than that is a very frightening scenario for American War Power abroad and we should start thinking about pulling our Embassies from around the world if we are unable to protect them. I hope for the sake of the President’s honor that it was only a lack of resources and ability that allowed for those four Americans to be brutally murdered.

    • I have posted a map of known available forces 1-2 hours from Benghazi at Phi Beta Iota,

      Submarine, if one were in the Med, probably does NOT have SEALS embarked, it certainly could have landed a naval landing team, my sense is that DoD went into grid-lock after Panetta fired Ham — and Ham’s deputy in my view, was way too eager to relieve his boss, He could have asked for written instruction and given General Ham 30 minutes. There is also Commander’s Intent. If General Dempsey heard Obama say what Obama said he did, then in my view Dempsey had grounds for over-ruling SecDef and suggesting to the President that SecDef be relieved of duty. A whole bunch of folks seem to have lost sight of the fundamentals here, but the whole story is not yet known.

  3. Like everyone else in the administration, Leon Panetta is a lawyer. Unlike most of Obama’s court, he actually has military experience, in intelligence no less, but doesn’t seem to think like it.

    • Do you think it possible that there is more to this story than meets the eye? Something that can not be made available to the public for vital security reasons? Something that could potentially jeopardize more lives?

      All this conspirtorial speculation and grandstanding is foolish and ignorant.

      • Read Thomas Sowell’s piece on “cooling the mark” your a prefect example of it. You’ve been had dad and you don’t even know it.

      • Dead on Tim. They’ll go forward with 100% failth in speculation and unfounded rumors, but when the truth does come out, as it is with the timeline released last night, that’s just a lie. People believe what they want to believe as long as it supports their existing bias. Dems do it to.

        • See the various posts at Phi Beta Iota including the photo of the compound (a CIA villa with perfect swimming pool, not a consulate) and a copy of the State email to WH seven hours before the two deaths. My personal view is that Panetta was out of his depth and none of the flags around him were strong enough to get through to him.

          • You’ll get no argument from me on your opinion. But, as an old (very old) SF officer, I would ask those flag officers why, if Charles Woods was willing to put his career (not to mention his life) on the line by disobeying orders in order to “keep faith”, not one of them was willing to.

            And, I might add that, considering the state of affairs in the middle eas, not having REAL forces under the commander of AFRICOM is a dereliction on the order of what happened at Pearl Harbor.

          • Tend to agree that AFRICOM has been a runt with the weak officers, no example set by their founding CINC. Still, General Ham appears to have had the correct ethical reaction and was relieved for it — pending public knowledge I can only speculate on why Panetta would destroy the time advantage we had — SEVEN HOURS from the state email to white house (now visible online at


            and here is the photo of the CIA villa from Fox (not verified but probably correct):


            I’ve done what I can — it is on all of you to get these three items noticed elsewhere.

          • Has General Ham actually been sacked? I can’t find verification of that. First thing I did after hearing his name was check his bio looking for the typical signs of an political general. His bio implied to me that he was a straight shooter. Although it does say he was a political science major — which is always a red flag for me :-)

          • If you search for

            General Ham relieved Benghazi

            you will get a lot of hits. As reported in the media, he had help ready to go, was told to stand down, and evidently refused to obey that possibly illegal order. I can think of only two explanations: a) Panetta thought it was a controlled false flag operation that would be resolved as planned on Monday with a heroic rescue or b) he lost his nerve and the flags around him let him self-destruct.

            Seven hours.

          • Yes, I have seen a number of rumors but no confirmation. I would think that, if he were relieved for doing what he believed was the proper thing to do, he might come out and mention that before the election. Of course, he might be a staunch Democrat and be willing to take one for the party. In which case my own personal opinon would be that he has violated his oath.

          • A DoD news release said that it was not true. They said that the General had been planning to transition to retirement and that those plans had been made back in the middle of the years. The news release further said that leaders in DoD have always had full faith and confidence in the General. Check DoD news releases.

          • As a patriot who wants to trust his government, I just remind myself of the USS Liberty and get over it. If Ham were genuinely focused on retirement he would not have been sent to Africa Command. Certainly it would be helpful to hear from him, and I suspect that will happen later this week.

          • Let’s see now. Who are the two people in charge of DoD? Why, none other than SecDef Panetta and his boss, President Obama.

            I stand by my suspicions. Why a DoD news release? Why not a comment from the General himself?

          • am surprised my map has not gotten broader exposure. am not pushing it, happy to see the sun come up tomorrow; what really makes me sad is how many mediocrities comes with a president, regardless of which party is in power.

          • Well, of course, no one on the left would want your map to be seen. I’ve sent it to a number of people. Have you sent it to Fox news?

            I realize that I am biased but I honestly feel that there are more mediocrities and syncophants with this administration than with the previous.

          • You might try Fox news. CNN is clearly not going to cover Benghazi, I believe Admiral Lyons is rendering a helpful service by focusing on this. All I do is tell the truth without trying to manipulate the timing.

          • Well, since it was your work I didn’t want to step on your toes by assuming that I would have the right to do so. I have just sent your map to Bill O’Reilly.

            Unfortunately, since the leftist media has been quite effective in keeping such information from the public, Mr. Obama may indeed get reelected.

            What ever happened to the concept that a free society required a free press and freedom of information?

            Oh well, if Obama wins tonight I guess I’ll start a Texas secession movement :-)

  4. I’d appreciate it if I could get answers to the following questions about sending an F-16 from Aviano to Benghazi

    1. Is it not true that the distance by air from Aviano to Benghazi is about 1050 miles?
    2. Is it not true that at maximum speed an F-16 can fly said distance within an hour?
    3. Is it not true that an F-16 can carry ground-to-air rockets that can be precisely guided to target by a laser designator?
    4. Is it not true that the former SEALS who fought at the Annex “painted” the mortar that was firing at them with a laser designator?
    5. Is it not true that the F-16 is equipped with a Vulcan 20 mm Gatling gun which can be used to attack ground targets?
    6. Is it not true that the former SEALS fighting at the Annex reported that there were terrorists fighting them and not civilians and that there were no innocent civilians at the scene of battle?
    7. If the answer to the questions above is TRUE , than could someone explain to me, why for the love of God , didn’t the U.S. armed forces rush to the battle to save their warriors.

    • Nice set of questions. Not sure if the fully loaded jets could have made it all the way to the fight in less than two hours, AND with a tanker launched an hour ahead to refuel them before they went in to the fight. General Ham needs to be heard by the public, as well as the Admiral that was ordered home from Carrier Strike Group 3. I have always believed in strip alerts, but what I have learned from this experience is that I also need to have a tanker on strip alert or even pre-positioned when Ambassadors go in harm’s way and State Department home office is being stupid.

    • Simple answer. The “Commander in Chief” has not only not served one day in the military but has spent his life as a “community organizer”. He comes from dog eat dog Chicago politcs and has no concept of the relationships between brothers (and sisters) in arms. As an old airborne officer I would submit that if volunteers were requested from the 173rd Airborne based in Vicenza, Italy to put themselves in harms way the only problem would have been too many volunteers!

      F-16s, AC-130s and airborne forces could have all been ordered to move and, if they weren’t necessary or arrived to late to be helpful, could have been recalled.

      The failure here is a failure of will, not capability

        • Great work on that map, Robert! Sure does show why questions should be raised about available assets. Think you can get CNN and the New York Times to show it today before the election tomorrow? :-) (an obviously rhetorical question).

          I like the comment about the “throw away fighter” but, even if mid-air refueling wasn’t available I would bet the the Libyan govt would have given landing permission. The runway at Tripoli is almost 12,000 feet long. Enough for even a fast mover.

          (Moron AFB? Is AF One based there? ;-) )


          • You’re absolutely right, an emergency landing would have been an option, but I would have sent a volunteer to buzz and after fry the open areas around the CIA villa (no way is this place with a pool a “consulate,” prepared to eject over water if he/she had to.

            Also added FAST at Rota.

            I urge all of you to send the NEW map (added 173rd Airborne ( – ) to NYT, Fox, CNN, etcetera. Here is both the full URL (some are suspicious of tiny urls) followed by the tiny url.



          • From what I have read, we are not the first to question whether just the mere presence of a fast mover might have been a deterrent.

            Of course when the use of a fast mover was mentioned to Mr. Obama he thought they were talking about one of his Hollywood friends!

            I’ve sent your jpg out to a number of people today. I sent the jpg as an attachment — giving attribution of course.

          • Role of Dewey Claridge of CIA Iran Contract just came to light, his company was behind the local security for the CIA team, they hired people who had never held a gun in their life, and posted them unarmed. Their job was to sound the alarm and run.

          • Sounds like this administration. And wasn’t SecDef Panetta’s last “job” Director of the CIA?

  5. Secretary Panetta’s infamous attempt at writing military doctrine with his statements to the press:
    “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, 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.”

    Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting the following passage on pages 86 and 87:
    “We must have the moral courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty–and to accept full responsibility for those decisions–when the natural inclination would be to postpone the decision pending more complete information. To delay action in an emergency because of incomplete information shows a lack of moral courage. We do not want to make rash decisions, but we must not squander opportunities while trying to gain more information. Finally, since all decisions must be made in the face of uncertainty and since every situation is unique, there is no perfect solution to any battlefield problem. Therefore, we should not agonize over one.”

  6. If Mr. Wolfowitz’s information is correct, why didn’t Leon Panetta,or the higly political Gen. Dempsey, tick off this list of actions the military could not do? Is the administration afraid of criticism of their woeful lack of positioning resources to respond to the dangerous situation in Libya?
    No AC-130s in range to engage in Benghazi withing 7 hours?

  7. “From what I can determine from talking with someone who has spoken directly with key general officers and others involved…” In my best Klingon roar, “I do not believe you! Name these people!! Whom did you talk with who talked with someone who spoke with someone?! I spoke with someone who knows you are a Ptak!! What is the key general officer’s name? When did you speak with him? Where? For how long? Did he have an obscure video…”

  8. 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.

    ” … leaning forward …” ??? Heard that somewhere before…. Oh, the President re Hurricane Sandy response. Funny, little, idiosyncratic phrase, isn’t it.

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