Nine months before the terrorist attack on Benghazi that killed ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American officials, the State Department was dispatched a security officer to assess the security situation of the outpost. The officer, according to testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, told his superior:
“I told him that, you know—to use frank language, I told him that this was a suicide mission; that there was a very good chance that everybody here was going to die; that there was absolutely no ability here to prevent an attack whatsoever; that we were in a completely vulnerable position, and we needed help fast, we needed it quickly, or we were going to have dire consequences.
“[His superior] said, everybody back here in D.C. knows that people are going to die in Benghazi, and nobody cares and nobody is going to care until somebody does die. The only thing that you and I can do is save our emails for the ARB (Administrative Review Board) that we all know is coming.”
The Select Committee presented its report on Tuesday and its a damning indictment of sickening judgment that put people’s lives at risk, bureaucratic passivity that led to the unchallenged murder of Americans, and a shoddy attempt to control the message to protect the administration’s preferred narrative.
The effort to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in Benghazi did not begin as a suicide mission. It began with four goals, one of which was to counter the growth of Islamic extremism after the fall of Qadhafi.
“The American people and the U.S. Congress will be understandably irritated if a revolution the United States supported ends up spewing hatred of advocating violence against the United States,” an email to the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning wrote.
Despite the perceived importance of the Libyan mission generally, particularly to Obama’s legacy, the administration was hesitant to commit to a permanent presence in Benghazi. As a result, requests for additional protective measures often went unaddressed, even as the security system worsened. For instance, a request for additional Diplomatic Security Agents was rejected despite coming less than two weeks after an attack by an improvised explosive device (IED).
The death of Qadhafi didn’t help matters. Terrorist forces quickly recognized the interim government’s weak security presence and crisis management capabilities and moved quickly to establish a presence in the area. The Committee report includes dozens of intelligence assessments and reports showing the deteriorating security situation in Libya. One Central Intelligence assessment from 2012, for instance, says that “Libyan militias with extremist ties increasingly are exploiting the permissive security environment LIbya—particularly in the east—to establish training camps, providing these groups with controlled areas in which to improve their operational capabilities.”
Christopher Stevens was undeterred. During a trip to Washington in which he was finally sworn in as the Ambassador of Libya, Stevens told a State Department employee, that Benghazi “was not only the epicenter of the revolution, but a long-neglected part of the Libyan polity” and that if too much focus was placed in Tripoli, that “Benghazi could degenerate” and led to a greater “potential future spread of extremist activity.”
Throughout 2012 the attacks continued. In June alone, the U.S. mission in Benghazi was targeted by an IED, two hand grenades were thrown at marked UK vehicles, the UK Ambassador’s convoy was attacked, and an rocket propelled grenade was shot at the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Defense Intelligence Agency clearly recognized the growing threat to diplomatic staff.
“[I]f the current security vacuum persists, attacks against US and Western interests in Libya will increase in number and lethality,” a DIA report from June said. “While specific targets of future terrorist attacks are unknown, the DoD presence at US diplomatic facilities…may be considered as potential targets.”
In spite of it all, no additional resources were provided by Washington. In handoff notes to the incoming Diplomatic Security Agent, the departing Agent wrote:
“…there is nothing traditional about this post. Operating in a high threat environment where kidnappings, assassinations and bomings are weekly, if not daily occurences, post enjoys neither the resources nor the host nation security support one would find at a similarly rated post. DS agents, for all intent purposes, are on their own.”
When asked why, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Committee that “there was no actionable intelligence on September 11 or even before that date about any kind of planned attack on our compound in Benghazi.”
But as the report argues, “It is not clear what additional intelligence would have satisfied either Kennedy or the Secretary in understanding the Benghazi Mission compound was at risk—short of an attack.”
Of course, an attack did happen. An assault on the Benghazi embassy began at 9:42pm local time and 3:42pm Washington time. Immediately after word of the attack reached Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta he, and General Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left the Pentagon to attend a meeting with President Obama.
According to the report, “The President made clear that we ought to use all of the resources at our disposal to try to make sure we did everything possible to try to save lives there.”
Panetta and Dempsey leapt into action and convened a meeting in the Pentagon to discuss what assets could be deployed. They learned of two FAST platoons, the CIF and the U.S. SOF, but were not aware of any assets in Tripoli. The report details Panetta’s recollection of his commands:
Similarly, the Secretary insists his own intentions and actions that night, in the aftermath of the President’s orders, were also clear: deploy the identified assets immediately. The Secretary said his orders were active tense. “My orders were to deploy those forces, period….[I]t was very clear: They are to deploy.” He did not order the preparation to deploy or the planning to deploy or the contemplation of deployment. His une- quivocal testimony was that he ordered the identified assets to “de-ploy.”
“I had the authority to deploy those forces. And I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to get those forces into place,” Panetta said. “[T]hese are elite units, and the purpose of these units is to move when I give the order to move, and that’s what I expected.”
And yet it was two hours before Panetta’s orders were relayed to the forces and several more hours before any of them move. Why the delay? Simple: Bureaucrats, including Hillary Clinton, got involved.
A group, including Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, the Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Patrick Kennedy, an Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department, convened a meeting to discuss…something. Although accounts vary as to what was to be discussed , one summary of the meeting that was uncovered listed the theme as “getting forces ready to reply” and another concluded that forces were not going to deploy “until order comes, to go to either Tripoli or Benghazi.”
Amazingly, one of the meeting’s discussion topics was whether the FAST Platoon should wear civilian clothes. Here’s the FAST Platoon commander explaining to the committee why they did not lift off despite having aircraft ready to deploy.
“So we were told multiple times to change what we were wearing, to change from cammies into civilian attire, civilian attire into cammies, cammies into civilian attire … and we had to make those changes inside of the aircraft,” he testified.
As a result, despite the President’s open-ended pledge and the Secretary of Defense’s clear directive, the first force did not deploy until 13 hours after the attack begun and the CIF team did not deploy until 18 hours from the beginning of the attack. Our forces were so tied up in State Department bureaucracy that a group known as the Libyan Military Intelligence, who was unknown to the CIA and which was “comprised of former military officers under the [Gadhafi] regime who had gone into hiding,” were the forces that actually rescued the remaining personnel at the embassy annex.
The report concludes:
There was life and death urgency felt in Libya with split-second deci- sions being made: do I fire on this crowd or not? Do we fire in the direction of a residence or not? Do we return to a smoke and fire engulfed building yet again in search of fallen colleagues? Do we go to the hospital to find Stevens or to the Annex? How do we fly from Tripoli to Benghazi?
If that same degree of urgency was felt among the decision makers in Washington it is not reflected in the time within which decisions were made nor in the topics being debated in and around the deployment.
The “tyranny of time and distance” may well explain why no U.S. military asset—save the bravery of the men serving in Tripoli—made it to Benghazi. It does not explain why no asset was even headed toward Benghazi. The “tyranny of time and distance” does not explain why Washington D.C. leaders were preoccupied with ancillary issues when they were responsible for sending our fellow Americans into harm’s way in the first instance.
So how did Clinton, whose appalling lack of leadership in the face of urgent need, respond?
“I’ll leave it to others to characterize this report, but I think it’s pretty clear it’s time to move on,” Clinton added.
And to think, this is someone people honestly think deserves to be President of the United States.