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Petraeus and Panetta Speak—But Not the President

1:00 PM, Oct 31, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Seven weeks later, the White House still hasn't explained what President Obama did and didn't do during the seven hours of the attack on Benghazi on September 11. And there's been no response from the White House to questions asked by senators or THE WEEKLY STANDARD or David Ignatius in the Washington Post

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We have, to be sure, heard from some government officials. But the information they've provided raises still more questions.

CIA director David Petraeus authorized a statement pointedly saying that "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate"—which strongly suggests that Petraeus believes or knows that officials in other parts of the government may have told subordinates "not to help those in need."

Those could have been officials in the Defense Department. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seemed to suggest that was the case: "The basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place, and as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation."

Panetta's statement only makes sense if there were those in the military or elsewhere who considered or urged deploying forces into harm's way, and that those individuals were overruled because of the lack of real-time information. Take another look at what Panetta said: "As a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation." In other words, Panetta is acknowledging forces could have been put at risk, but that a decision was made not to do so. Maybe this was the right decision—but since we've been given no details at all, and since the Obama administration refuses to answer questions, it's hard to know. Indeed, since there seems in fact to have been "real-time information" available from those fighting on the ground, Panetta's excuse for inaction would at least require considerable elaboration to be convincing.

In response perhaps to the questions raised by Petraeus and Panetta, there now appears to be an attempt by some defense officials to suggest there really wasn't much more that could have been done on September 11, given limitations on the assets and capabilities available. But such explanations have only been provided indirectly and on background. Shouldn't some senior officer explain this on the record if it's true? And how can that argument be reconciled with Panetta's suggestion that more could have been done but that it would have been too risky to try?

So here's where we are: Petraeus has made clear the CIA wasn't responsible for the decision not to act. Panetta has tried to take the responsibility himself—and the White House has seemed to encourage this interpretation of events. But Panetta's position is untenable: The Defense Department doesn't get to unilaterally decide whether it's too risky or not to try to rescue CIA operators, or to violate another country's air space. In any case, it’s inconceivable Panetta didn't raise the question of what to do when he met with the national security adviser and the president at 5 p.m. on the evening of September 11 for an hour. And it's beyond inconceivable he didn't then stay in touch with the White House after he returned to the Pentagon.

So the question remains: What did President Obama do that evening (apart from spending an hour on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu)? What did he know, and what did he decide, and what was the basis for his decisions?

Petraeus has disclaimed responsibility for the decisions of September 11. Panetta has claimed responsibility for decisions that weren't his to make. Both Petraeus and Panetta have raised more questions than they've answered. The only person who can provide the answers the American people deserve is President Obama.

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