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The Other Benghazi Scandal

Did we really do all we could have to respond to the attack?

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The State Department convened an “Accountability Review Board” co-chaired by the respected former senior diplomat Thomas R. Pickering. The board issued reports in classified and unclassified versions in December. The unclassified version holds that “Responsibility for the tragic loss of life .  .  . rests solely and completely with the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks,” noting later, “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.”

The problem here is the way the lens is pointed. The frame of the board’s investigation seems to have been whether anything that could have been done differently would have saved the lives of the Americans. The board concludes that the answer is no, and this may well be correct.

The chronology in its report shows that the attack on the U.S. compound began before 9:45 p.m. local time. The attackers started the fire whose smoke would claim the lives of Stevens and information management officer Sean Smith by 10 p.m. Additional security personnel left a nearby annex to provide assistance shortly thereafter.

The Americans evacuated the compound by 11:30, having found Smith dead but not having located Stevens amidst the thick smoke. Word of another “unresponsive male” (Stevens) came around 2 a.m. Some locals apparently had carried him to a hospital at 1:15 a.m., where efforts to revive him failed. The U.S. embassy in Tripoli, meanwhile, chartered a plane to dispatch a security team of seven to Benghazi. They arrived at about 5:00 a.m., in time for an intensified attack on the annex that left two more Americans dead from mortar fire. At 6:30 a.m., all Americans evacuated the annex to the airport without further incident.

So there was indeed very little time, and Stevens and Smith died early in the attack. But, of course, in the first couple of hours, no one knew how the attack would turn out. It’s here that the question of the response needs to be broadened.

Some reports have suggested that additional security assets were available, including Special Forces teams. The deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time, Gregory Hicks, told a congressional hearing that one such team in Tripoli was ready to fly to Benghazi on the C-130 sent for the evacuation, but its commander received a last-minute phone call from Special Operations Command Africa ordering the team not to go. Hicks also noted that there was no display of airpower over Benghazi despite the proximity of the Souda Bay naval base in Greece, about an hour away (though AFRICOM did dispatch an unarmed drone to monitor the scene). Hicks said that “if we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.” Other reports of available undeployed resources have surfaced but remain unconfirmed.

Whether Hicks is right that a show of airpower would have prevented the mortar attack, sparing two Americans, is unknowable. What is certain is that the response to the attack in real time does not exactly seem to have been to mobilize as broadly as possible. It may be that there were no “undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders.” But neither does there appear to have been a forward-leaning effort on the part of those making decisions to throw major resources at an unfolding crisis despite the potential for loss of American lives before anyone knew how many lives would be lost.

Pentagon officials have claimed that it would have taken as long as 20 hours to get available forces in Italy to the scene. Therefore, it was too late. That would be reassuring only if somebody had actually made a decision by 11 p.m. Libyan time on September 11 to send them. Otherwise, the claim it was too late is completely hollow, since no one knew when too late was at that point. 

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