For more than six months, a gap has been yawning wide in the Obama administration’s storyline on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
At 4:30 p.m. in Washington that day, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta learned of the attack underway against the U.S. Consulate in Libya. He was meeting at the time with President Barack Obama in the White House. Yet reportedly 90 minutes passed before Panetta authorized the deployment of a Marine Corps anti-terrorism team to Benghazi and Tripoli from Rota, Spain. Even then no such military units arrived in Libya until nearly a day (21 hours) later, long after the incident was over and the bodies and wounded recovered.
Questions about why the Pentagon didn’t scramble U.S. forces may get answers tomorrow—when top U.S. diplomats on hand in Libya at the time of the attacks testify for the first time before Congress.
Gregory N. Hicks—deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and a 22-year State Department veteran—is expected to tell the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he thought the raid on the Benghazi consulate was an organized terrorist attack from the start. He is also expected to tell lawmakers that he sought permission from Washington to deploy four U.S. Special Operations troops to Benghazi aboard a Libyan military aircraft—and those troops were ordered to stand down.
That bombshell is included in a partial transcript of Hicks’s testimony released by the House committee on Monday ahead of the Wednesday hearing, according to a report in today’s Washington Post. It suggests the Obama administration failed to take seriously an armed assault that resulted in the first death of a U.S. ambassador in more than 50 years. And it directly contradicts sworn testimony of top Obama officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In her January testimony to Congress, Clinton dismissed allegations that the administration ignored warnings about the security situation, saying they never reached her desk, and took issue with lawmakers who said response from Washington had been slow.
Republicans have contended that the attack was politicized by an Obama administration not wanting doubts to surface over its handling of national security on the anniversary of 9/11, and wanting to avoid a debate on its conduct of foreign policy as voters went to the polls in the 2012 presidential election.
Had the State Department acknowledged a cable from Ambassador Stevens earlier on Sept. 11, warning of stepped-up militant al-Qaeda activity, the four U.S. Americans in Benghazi, as well as the consulate itself, might have been spared. After all, British diplomats and the Red Cross evacuated Benghazi that day based on similar intelligence. And had the Pentagon ordered in a rapid-response force, wounded officers could have received U.S. aid more promptly—and a different message sent to the volatile Arab world. With more testimony to come, one question in the storyline remains: What was the role of the president himself in ordering a stand-down, given that he learned of the attack along with the secretary of defense?