The complexity of Washington scandals as they unfold usually involves many moments at which it is possible to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Two such instances have come into sharper relief in recent weeks. One is that we still have no good explanation for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points for her round of talk show appearances the Sunday after the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. A second is that focusing on the question of whether the loss of four lives there could have been avoided is actually a clever diversion from a serious inquiry into the adequacy of the response to the crisis as it unfolded.
Thanks to the solid reporting of The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes among others, we now have a pretty good picture of how the CIA-prepared “talking points” about the events in Benghazi evolved. A document that initially fingered extremist Islamist groups eventually transmogrified into pabulum that would not contradict Rice’s storyline about an attack triggered by protests over an anti-Islam movie trailer. The White House was heavily involved in brokering the interagency catfight provoked by the CIA’s ham-handed exercise in blame deflection.
What we still lack, more than eight months later, is an adequate account of why Rice came to seize tenaciously on the film trailer, which had served as a pretext for earlier demonstrations in Cairo, as the best explanation for what was already known to have been a coordinated attack by jihadists on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
From the hundred pages of redacted email printouts the administration finally released, however, it looks like we do now know of a document that might hold some answers, though we do not yet know its contents. Someone with the United States U.N. mission sent Rice and her deputy an email at 1:23 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, the day before she made the rounds of the Sunday shows, with the subject line “SBU[Sensitive But Unclassified]/CLOSEHOLD: 0800 SVTS [Secure Video Teleconferencing System] on Movie Protests/Violence.” The content of the email, redacted from the beginning for more than a page, then shows a one-word heading “Libya:” followed by another redacted passage and then a paragraph concerning the origin of the request for talking points, which came from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But the subject line suggests that Rice was being briefed that morning on the connection between the movie trailer and “Protests/Violence” in Libya and elsewhere.
Of course administration officials had been talking about such a Benghazi connection for days, perhaps making a leap of faith as a result of the Cairo protests. At some early point, however, certainly before Rice went on TV Sunday morning, the administration knew better. There were, after all, no protests or demonstrations in Benghazi, just a coordinated attack. It is manifestly clear that while Rice saw the meaningless blather that ended up going to the House Intelligence Committee, those were not her talking points. Otherwise she would have stuck to meaningless investigation-is-ongoing, hold-the-perpetrators-to-account blather herself. Instead, she peddled the movie-trailer line.
Two days later, the State Department spokesperson said, “Ambassador Rice was speaking on behalf of the government with regard to our initial assessments.” Right. But the initial assessments tracing the Benghazi attack to the Cairo demonstrations and the movie trailer were wrong. The question with regard to Rice’s credibility is whether she or anybody involved in preparing her for the Sunday shows knew or had indication that the initial assessments were wrong. Finding out what else this email had to say about Libya would be a good start.
Ultimately, the detailed course of untangling the talking points may be serving as a distraction from a deeper issue: Did the officials consulted in the course of the hectic hours of the attack do everything they could to try to save the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans in danger?
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.
And in this light, it’s pretty good luck both for the Americans on the ground and the ones who didn’t make the decision to deploy credible force as quickly as possible that those who perpetrated this remarkably effective surprise attack didn’t have the capacity to continue it through the evacuation of the annex and at the airport.
The military claims to be developing plans for more effective rapid response to situations like Benghazi. That’s fine. But they won’t do any good in the absence of political will on the part of the senior civilian leadership to act swiftly and decisively.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.