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.
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.”
Democrats on the committee did not dispute the false YouTube video narrative the administration pursued in the days after the attack, but they did push back against the idea that the military didn’t respond. Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., confirmed that some assets were dispatched to Libya, although Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., noted they were all directed to Tripoli, not Benghazi.
Lovell said a full account of what happened on the night of the attacks is critical to prevent similar tragedies in the future: “We have to have the confidence of the American people that provide us with the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and dads. We have to ensure we rebuild the trust.”
The hearing also explored the larger context for the Benghazi attack, including the U.S. decision to help topple Muammar Qaddafi. Libya was an inaugural member of the State Department’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list in 1979, but the Bush administration removed the designation in 2007 after Qaddafi expelled terrorist groups, closed training camps, and shuttered his WMD program. In March 2011, the Obama administration went all-in to get rid of Qaddafi. The ensuing U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign ousted the dictator but destabilized the country, and cost tens of thousands of lives, including four Americans.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, submitted testimony saying the intervention in Libya was “executed nearly flawlessly,” but the decision “appears to be a strategic mistake.” He said the war in Libya was a “foreign policy blunder” on par with the Iraq war, but it didn’t attract the same attention because it cost far less in money and American lives.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior Middle East associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified that most Libyans attribute the country’s destabilization to Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, not the NATO-led intervention. He said Libyans retain feelings of goodwill toward the United States, even as the country struggles to form a stable government and eliminate terrorist threats.