“This national security stuff boring you?”
—Tom Arnold as Albert Gibson in True Lies
This is unbelievable, and I can’t fathom why it’s not getting more coverage than it is.
Last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead. And I have to tell you, the story they told was simply shocking.
Panetta told the committee that he met with President Obama and Vice President Biden in person at the White House at 5:00 p.m. the afternoon of the 11th. This was a previously-scheduled security briefing, but Panetta confirmed that in the course of that meeting he informed the President of the attack, which had begun a little over an hour earlier. This in itself raises an interesting issue.
Panetta testified that he knew “immediately” that the Benghazi raid was a terrorist assault, and presumably he so informed the President. This echoes earlier statements by then-CIA Director General David Petraeus, who has said that CIA likewise knew and told the White House that the incident was a terrorist attack (contrast that with complaints from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice that CIA gave them bad intelligence in this regard). So we have both the head of the Defense Department and the head of Central Intelligence now both saying they knew that the assault was a terrorist attack, and that they told the President so. Why, then, would the Obama Administration—including the President himself, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the White House Press Secretary—repeatedly and for weeks afterward have been publicly so garbled and confused about the attacks simply being a protest over an internet movie?
With all due respect to Hillary Clinton and her disingenuous indignation when asked about this very issue, this matters a great deal once you overlay the Administration’s messaging against the timeline and what we now know about what the President actually did (or, more aptly, didn’t do).
The first attack began around 3:45 p.m. Washington time. At that time, according to the published White House schedule, the President was at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, visiting injured troops. By 5:00, Obama was meeting in person with his Secretary of Defense and learning of the attack. According to Panetta—there has been no comment from the White House to rebut this—Obama gave him no instructions other than to “do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there,” which I suppose is fine so far as it goes. But according to Panetta, Obama didn’t ask how long it would take to deploy any assets, or even what assets and options were available. Basically, the inquisitive professor asked nothing about any details, and punted to Panetta.
Panetta, armed with the vague directive to do “whatever,” spent the next two hours debating options, and ordering anti-terrorist teams to “prepare” to head to the region. A six-man security team from Tripoli arrived at Benghazi around 7:30 p.m. Washington time. A second attack was launched at 11:15, some 7 ½ hours after the first attack began, and more than six hours after Panetta met with President Obama. Yet during that period, other than an unarmed surveillance drone (which arrived in about an hour), and a single six-man security team, Panetta confirmed that not a single armed aircraft nor a single military unit left the ground to come to Benghazi’s aid.
Six hours. You can fly from New York to London (about 3400 miles) in that time. Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany is less than half that distance from Benghazi. Military assets in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey are closer still. And there is always at least one Navy carrier strike group in the Mediterranean. But although nobody knew how long the first attack would last or how many additional assaults there might be, not a single unit was even ordered to attempt to get there.
But here’s where it gets really disturbing.
During the seven or so hours between the time he met with the President and the end of the second attack, while Panetta was wringing his hands but taking no action, he also never called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nor did he call the Secretary of State. And neither of them called him. Not once.
Worse, the White House has now confirmed what Panetta told us last week, that while the President’s security staff periodically checked in with Panetta, the President himself never once contacted him to follow up on the status on the ground in Benghazi. Although his calendar shows no official events for the remainder of the evening, the President couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone and see if Panetta was doing what he had instructed him to do.
Nor did he call Secretary Clinton.
Nor did he call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In fact, according to the White House itself, President Obama didn’t call anybody all night.
To sum it up, the consulate came under attack at 3:45 p.m. Washington time, and for the next eight hours the Secretary of Defense, charged by the President to do “whatever you need to do,” in fact did essentially nothing. The heads of the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department weren’t talking with each other. Meanwhile the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, with sovereign U.S. soil under armed siege and Americans being killed, went to sleep without talking to any of his senior defense leadership the rest of the night.
Now, I understand the concept of delegating, and frankly I’d just as soon Obama leave to the experts the nuts and bolts of, well, anything. But delegation doesn’t mean you hand it off and wash your hands of it completely; we’re not talking about a Ronco rotisserie toaster oven where you can just set it and forget it. The President is ultimately responsible for national defense, which means he’s ultimately responsible for defending you. Yet Benghazi demonstrates that Obama simply can’t be bothered with these things. For the Commander-in-Chief not to have enough passing curiosity to ask what the plan was, when it would be implemented, or even whether the situation was under control is terrifying. Whether it’s a lack of spine or interest, faced with a situation in which immediate action needed to be taken to defend Americans on American soil, he was utterly and in every way absent.
And now he’s running from it. It’s 158 days and counting, and Obama still hasn’t addressed the nation about what happened in Benghazi, or explained where he was and what he was doing (or not), nor accepted any responsibility whatsoever. Contrast that with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Obama went on national TV within hours to announce—and claim credit for—the success of that mission, and the White House was quick to release photos from the situation room depicting Obama and Clinton in a very hands-on, real time role. But, of course, that’s one that went well. With Benghazi, he’s nowhere to be seen; he lets Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice face the questions and throw Petraeus under the bus.
This was just a mob-sized attack on a small consulate. What’s he going to do if a very belligerent Iran becomes nuclear? What’s he going to do if an even more belligerent North Korea actually figures out how to get a missile from the Korean peninsula to Seattle or San Francisco?
He won’t be able to hide behind a drone or a teleprompter then.