House Speaker John Boehner says there are “unanswered questions” about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi. He specifically asks “why didn’t we attempt to rescue” Americans under siege and why were some U.S. personnel “told not to get involved” in rescue attempts?
But those questions have been answered at length in several investigative reports, including two by Republican-controlled House committees. Congressional committees and an independent board detail the rescue attempts that night, carried out despite U.S. military assets not being in position to defend the Benghazi facility. Those reports say there were no undue delays in responding to the attacks, and they pointedly rejected unfounded allegations that the U.S. response was deliberately thwarted by a “stand down” order.
“Quite the contrary: the safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi twelve hours after the initial attack and subsequently to Ramstein Air Force Base was the result of exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response,” the independent Accountability Review Board concluded in its Dec. 18, 2012, report.
The “U.S. military performed well in responding to the attacks,” the House Armed Services Committee said in a February 2014 report. Separately, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in its November 2014 report that the CIA — which was first on the scene of the attack — responded in a “timely and appropriate manner.”
Boehner appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and discussed the Select Committee on Benghazi, a special panel created by the Republican-controlled House last year. The U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi (referred to in official reports as a temporary mission facility, or TMF) was attacked by heavily armed extremists on Sept. 11, 2012. The terrorist attack left four U.S. citizens dead — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
Host Chris Wallace asked Boehner why he set up the committee “even though there have been about a half dozen investigations” and the GOP-controlled House intelligence committee “basically said there was no there there.” Wallace asked if the committee was created to hurt former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Boehner, Feb. 15: No, Chris, it’s — the idea here is to get the American people the facts about what happened. Why wasn’t the security for our embassy in Libya, the extra security, given to the ambassador after repeated requests? The night of the event, why didn’t we attempt to rescue the people that were there? Why were the people there told not to get involved?
And then, as importantly, when did the president know this? And why, for some two weeks, did he describe it differently than what it really was?
There are a lot of unanswered questions, and as Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Benghazi committee, has been told by me, I don’t need a big show here but we need our facts. The American people deserve the truth about what happened and that’s all we’re interested in.
All the questions posed by Boehner have been addressed by various House and Senate committees and by the Accountability Review Board convened by the State Department, but we focus in particular on the U.S. rescue attempts because the premise of those questions is misleading.
Let’s review what the reports say about the rescue attempt and how U.S. security, intelligence and military personnel were deployed that night.
Extremists armed with small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars attacked the diplomatic facility at about 9:42 p.m. Benghazi time on Sept. 11, 2012, according to a Defense timeline. In about 17 minutes after the attack, the Defense Department diverted an unmanned surveillance drone to Benghazi, the timeline says. At about the same time, the chief of a CIA annex near the Benghazi diplomatic facility was making preparations to send a team of seven to assist in a rescue operation.
At 10:04 p.m., the CIA team departed in two armored vehicles, arriving at the facility at 10:25 p.m. and immediately engaging in a 15-minute firefight with the extremists, according to a bipartisan report issued December 30, 2012, by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The House intelligence committee report said that “some Annex team members wanted urgently to depart the Annex for the TMF to save their State Department colleagues,” but the Annex chief “ordered the team to wait so that the seniors on the ground could ascertain the situation at the TMF and whether they could secure heavy weaponry support from local militias.”
This order to wait has been described by some as a “stand down” order, but it was not. The Republican-controlled House intelligence committee said that based on all the evidence, “the Annex leadership deliberated thoughtfully, reasonably, and quickly.”
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Nov. 21, 2014: The evidence from eyewitness testimony, ISR video footage, closed-circuit television recordings, and other sources provides no support for the allegation that there was any stand-down order. Rather, there were mere tactical disagreements about the speed with which the team should depart prior to securing additional security assets.
A bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report released on Jan. 15, 2014, reached the same conclusion.
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jan. 15: The Committee explored claims that there was a “stand down” order given to the security team at the Annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound, the Committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.
At about midnight Benghazi time, a little more than two hours after the attack began, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gathered top military leaders at the Pentagon to discuss military options, according to the Defense timeline. (We will get back to Panetta’s decisions later.)
While military leaders convened at the Pentagon, a six-man security team from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, including two military personnel, departed for Benghazi at about 12:30 a.m. Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander at the time of Special Operations Command Africa, did not send all the security forces stationed in Tripoli. He ordered Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson’s team to remain in Tripoli to protect the U.S. embassy in the event of an attack there, according to the House Armed Services Committee report.
Gibson was initially “visibly upset” that his team was not dispatched to Benghazi along with the other team from Tripoli, the House report said. A colleague described Gibson as being “furious” at the time at having been ordered to “stand down.” But “Gibson made it clear to the committee that ‘in hindsight’ he believes remaining in Tripoli was appropriate,” the House report said.
“I was not ordered to stand down. I was ordered to remain in place,” Gibson told the House Armed Services Committee. ” ‘Stand down’ implies that we cease all operations, cease all activities. We continued to support the team that was in Tripoli.”
The Tripoli team arrived in Benghazi in about an hour, but it was delayed at the airport “for at least three hours,” according to the Senate homeland security committee report. The committee said the delay “merits further inquiry” to determine if it was merely part of the “chaotic environment” at the time or “was it part of a plot to keep American help from reaching the Americans under siege in Benghazi.” It turned out to be the result of the “chaotic environment,” not “part of a plot.”
The Senate intelligence committee later said in its report that the Tripoli team was trying to locate Stevens before leaving the airport. There had been reports that Stevens may have been at the Benghazi Medical Center, but Libyans were concerned about security at the hospital and feared the Americans could be lured into an ambush, the committee report said.
“After more than three hours of negotiations and communications with Libyan officials … the Libyan government arranged for the Libyan Shield Militia to provide transportation and an armed escort from the airport” to the CIA Annex, the Senate intelligence committee report said.
The Tripoli team arrived at the CIA Annex at 5:04 a.m., “about ten minutes before a new assault by the terrorists began, involving mortar rounds fired at the Annex,” according to the Senate homeland security report. That attack resulted in the deaths of Annex security team members Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, the report said. Libyan forces arrived at the Annex at 6 a.m. with 50 vehicles and transported the remaining Americans to the airport, where they would be evacuated by plane to Tripoli in two trips at 7:40 a.m. and 10 a.m. enroute ultimately to Germany.
Where was the U.S. military?
Panetta’s midnight meeting (Benghazi time) at the Pentagon lasted until about 2 a.m. After the meeting, Panetta took several actions. He agreed to send one Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team platoon stationed in Rota, Spain, to Benghazi and another to Tripoli. He also directed two special operations forces — one from Central Europe and another based in the United States — to depart for a staging base in Italy, according to the Defense timeline and the Senate homeland security report. None of those troops reached Benghazi in time.
“[T]here simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference,” as the independent Accountability Review Board said in its report. But other rescue efforts did make a difference.
The ARB report, which was released Dec. 18, 2012, said “every possible effort was made to protect, rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith.” Smith, a State Department information management officer, also died in the attack at the diplomatic mission.
Accountability Review Board: The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. Senior-level interagency discussions were underway soon after Washington received initial word of the attacks and continued through the night. The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders. Quite the contrary: the safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi twelve hours after the initial attack and subsequently to Ramstein Air Force Base was the result of exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response and helped save the lives of two severely wounded Americans.
The ARB was led by Thomas R. Pickering, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush, and retired Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Although there has been some criticism of the board in conservative circles, the State Department inspector general’s office issued a report in September 2013 that reviewed the board’s operations in general and its work specifically on Benghazi, and concluded that the ARB “operates as intended — independently and without bias.”
In a press conference on the board’s report, Mullen addressed the military’s inability to mobilize its assets quickly enough to defend the Benghazi facility. He said that “it is not reasonable, nor feasible, to tether U.S. forces at the ready to respond to protect every high-risk post in the world.”
There was, however, an increase in military protection of U.S. diplomatic facilities after the Benghazi attacks. A Congressional Research Service report dated July 30, 2014, said that “the U.S. Marine Security Guard posted detachments to 152 U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world as of September 2012; 35 new Marine Guard detachments were requested by the department after the Benghazi attacks.”
There is no question that mistakes were made prior to Sept. 11, 2012, that left the U.S. facilities in Benghazi vulnerable to attack. Multiple investigative reports document those mistakes.
The Senate homeland security report said the State Department made a “grievous mistake” in keeping the Benghazi facility open given the “dangerous threat environment” in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack. The ARB report said “systemic failures” and leadership “deficiencies” caused the State Department to ignore “repeated requests” for additional security staffing in Libya, leaving the Benghazi facility “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack.” (Which goes to another of Boehner’s questions: “Why wasn’t the security for our embassy in Libya, the extra security, given to the ambassador after repeated requests?”)
But as far as the night of the attack? The consensus is that the rescue attempts were carried out in a timely manner under difficult circumstances. For Boehner to ask “why didn’t we attempt to rescue” Americans under attack and why were some U.S. personnel “told not to get involved” ignores the evidence.
— Eugene Kiely