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September 11: Obama, Missing in Action

1:34 PM, Nov 5, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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What did or didn't the president do on the evening of September 11?


The White House has chosen not to answer questions. One has to presume we'd have answers by now if those answers showed a president engaged in managing the crisis. If President Obama had convened meetings, if he had called senior State Department or Defense Department or CIA officials to the White House, if he had held a teleconference from the situation room, one has to assume we would know about it. One therefore has to assume he did none of these things.

Here's what we know the president did on the evening of September 11. After returning to the White House, he seems to have presided over a previously scheduled 5:00 p.m. meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey. Apparently the ongoing situation in Benghazi was one topic discussed. It was at this meeting, one assumes—"the minute I found out what was happening," as Obama has said—that the president gave his "directive" to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." There seems to be no actual written record of this directive, so it was presumably a spoken directive to Secretary Panetta and national security adviser Tom Donilon (who, one assumes, was at that meeting as well).

That meeting went until about 6:00 p.m. About an hour later, President Obama placed a call to Prime Minister Netanyahu designed to dampen down the political flap over his refusal to meet with the prime minister at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting. That call went from about 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., and was followed by a press release giving a read-out of the call. So the president was presumably doing nothing about Benghazi during that stretch.

After that … nothing. There's no evidence the president did anything more than get occasional updates from Tom Donilon or other White House staff. On Fox News Sunday, David Axelrod said of the president, "Every conversation that needed to be had was being had between him and his top security officials" and "he was talking to them well into the night." The formulation suggests the president was talking on the phone with White House staffers rather than meeting with them in person, and it suggest a president who was being updated rather than a president in charge. 

That suggestion is reinforced by the failure of the White House and of Axelrod to provide any evidence to back up Axelrod's apparently fanciful claim on Fox News Sunday that "The president convened the top military officials that evening." In fact, there's no evidence of such a convening. There's no evidence the president even spoke directly that evening with Panetta, or any military official, or Secretary Clinton, or CIA head David Petraeus. Panetta's later account of the decision-making at the Pentagon suggests no presidential involvement at all: "And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation." He doesn't suggest that President Obama was even consulted about the decision. Similarly, I don't believe Secretary Clinton has ever said the president spoke directly with her that evening, and the CIA timeline put out late last week gives no indication that the president spoke directly with Petraeus.  

During the 2008 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton famously put up an ad—the 3:00 a.m. phone call ad—in which the narrator says, "Inevitably, another national security crisis will occur. And when it does, voters shouldn't have to wonder whether their president will be ready." Almost four years into his presidency, President Obama wasn't ready. He didn't act swiftly and decisively. He didn't really act at all—with the predictable consequence that the actions of the Defense Department, the CIA, and the State weren't well coordinated, and that the crisis became a debacle. There's a reason the Constitution sets up a unitary executive, with the president as commander in chief. On September 11, the president was missing in action.

And Hillary Clinton knows it. David Petraeus knows it. Leon Panetta knows it. One of the most striking aspects of the last eight weeks has been the failure of senior members of the president's national security team to defend his actions, or inaction, on September 11. They've each tried to defend what their own agencies did. But have any of them said a word in defense of the president?

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