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The remains of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Associated Press/Photo by Mohammad Hannon, File
The remains of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Could military action have saved lives in Benghazi?

Benghazi | Retired general tells House lawmakers the military didn’t do all it could to save four Americans who died

WASHINGTON—A retired U.S. Air Force general on Thursday told House lawmakers the U.S. military could have done more to help personnel under attack in Benghazi, Libya, but the State Department never told African Command (AFRICOM) to launch a rescue mission.

“There are accounts of time, space, and capability discussions of the question: Could we have gotten there in time to make a difference?” said retired Brig. Gen. Robert W. Lovell, a top AFRICOM general at the time of the attack. “The discussion is not in the ‘could or could not’ in relation to time, space, and capability—the point is we should have tried.”

Lovell’s comments came during a hearing in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, convened to discuss the U.S.-led intervention in Libya’s 2011 revolution and the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans.

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Lovell said AFRICOM was structurally designed for inter-agency cooperation, and the State Department formed the most influential of those partnerships. He said deference to the State Department was a “learned and cultivated trait” of AFRICOM, which is not equipped with its own units and assets.

That deference, Lovell said, led to “a lot of looking to the State Department to see what they wanted” on the night of the attack. He said it was the first time in his 33 years of military service that troops weren’t allowed to run to the sound of gunfire: “The military could have made a response. We were waiting on the State Department.” When Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, pressed the general on whether available assets could have arrived in time to possibly save lives, Lovell said: “We may have been able to, but we’ll never know.”

“You have a general in the room [when decisions were made] who testified they didn’t do everything they could have,” Chaffetz told me after the hearing. “That’s far different than what the Accountability Review Board conclusion was—but then again, the so-called ARB didn’t even interview this general.”

Not all Republicans were quick to embrace Lovell’s testimony: After the hearing Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, challenged Lovell’s ability to assess the military’s response. “We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources the Defense Department had available to respond,” he said. “Lovell did not further the investigation or reveal anything new, he was another painful reminder of the agony our military felt that night: wanting to respond but unable to do so.”

Lovell’s testimony came in the midst of an already contentious week for the Obama administration. Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, on Tuesday released White House emails showing the president’s top staff was involved in crafting since-discredited talking points on the Benghazi attack. White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted those September 2012 emails were not about Benghazi but about the state of the Middle East as a whole, which at the time was experiencing violent protests in Egypt and elsewhere.

Then-U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is now the White House national security adviser, blamed the Benghazi attack on an anti-Muslim YouTube video during five Sunday talk show appearances on Sept. 16, 2012. “She went out there with the best information we had at the time,” Carney said on Wednesday. “The CIA deputy director [Michael Morell] has testified to that.”

That’s partially true. Last month, Morell told the House Intelligence Committee that he made most of the changes to the talking points. Some early reports—which he acknowledged as erroneous—said a protest was involved. But Morell maintained the intelligence community never tied a potential protest to the YouTube video: “When she talked about the video, my reaction was, that’s not something that the analysts have attributed this attack to.”

A Sept. 12, 2012, email released last year showed Elizabeth Jones, a State Department official, told the Libyan ambassador the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia was responsible for the attack. Lovell on Thursday said the Department of Defense also established the al-Qaeda connection “very, very soon” and early in the evening dismissed any notion of the YouTube video’s involvement: “We immediately felt it was Ansar al-Sharia.”

“You have military intelligence saying there was no video, you have the CIA station chief saying the video played no role, you have the State Department themselves telling the Libyan ambassador the video played no role,” Chaffetz said. “Where did the White House come up with this idea that it was a video?”

Committee hearing witness Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the tragedy in Benghazi was an extraordinarily inopportune outlier to the White House narrative saying al-Qaeda was “on the run,” and that led to the “overt politicization” of what happened. Lovell said al-Qaeda was not on the run, and “my estimation would be that they were growing in strength—in number and capability.”

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