Did President Obama watch the Benghazi attack in real-time?
On Friday, Fox News reported that nearby CIA operatives were told to “stand down” during the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, despite their pleas to intervene. They eventually ignored the order and proceeded to evacuate personnel from the consulate, but by that time four Americans had been killed.
As if this was not unconscionable enough, reports are now surfacing that President Barack Obama watched the assault on the consulate in real-time and did nothing — absolutely nothing — to stop it:
Retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, who served as a senior operations officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan in 2003, told Fox News that the attack unfolded during the “middle of the business day in Washington, so everybody at the White House, CIA, Pentagon, everybody was watching this go down. According to my sources [Obama] was one of those in the White House Situation Room in real-time watching this.”
According to another Fox News report, urgent requests from CIA operators in the area were repeatedly denied as the attack was underway, and later as the CIA annex came under attack, with an order coming down twice from the CIA chain of command for the CIA operatives to “stand down” shortly after they heard shots fired at the consulate at 9:40 p.m. September 11.
Shaffer said pressure is mounting on Obama to explain what he knew — and what he could have done to possibly save lives as the attack was underway. “He, only he, could issue a directive to Secretary of Defense Panetta to do something,” Shaffer said. “That’s the only place it could be done.” Panetta has insisted that the White House did not intervene because it lacked information on what exactly was happening on the ground at the consulate.
Defense Secretary Panetta was more pointed recently than what is mentioned above, telling CBS News that they couldn’t have sent in help to the consulate “without knowing what’s on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”
But they had real-time information. Eli Lake has explained in his groundbreaking reporting on this sordid mess that the “State Department, monitoring the phone calls from the consulate’s operations center, knew virtually from the first minutes…that the attack on the consulate was no protest gone astray.” We also know that drones were flying over Benghazi sending in a real-time feed of the attack. Gary Berntsen, a retired CIA officer, had told CBS News that Washington made “zero adjustments” to deal with the attack, noting that the “[t]hey stood and they watched and our people died.”
We ccould call this incompetence, but it’s much worse than that. This is a complete dereliction of duty. The Obama Administration abandoned the consulate, rather than make a tough choice to get involved. Sure, we hear time and time again how President Obama acted on the intelligence that led to the killing Osama bin Laden, which is, as Gary Schmitt explains, a point is supposed to define his leadership. But when Americans were under attack, Schmitt notes, Obama did nothing:
One only has to remember the now iconic picture relayed around the nation and the world the next day of the president, surrounded by aides, the vice president and the secretary of state, intently watching the feed from an overhead drone in the White House situation room as the operation against bin Laden’s compound went down to understand the role the president plays in such matters.
Of course, that was then.
There are no pictures of the president watching a live feed from the drone that was above Benghazi the night Ambassador Stevens was killed. There are no pictures of the president monitoring the hours-long assault on the American diplomatic compounds there or the resulting firefight between the Islamists militia and U.S. security guards, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both of whom were killed early in the morning of September 12.
What we do have are reports that U.S. commandos, gunships, and other specialized forces were moved into position to come to the Americans’ assistance. Now, putting aside the fact that such deployments do not normally occur without the highest level of consultation within an administration, what we don’t know is who made the ultimate decision not to deploy those forces into Benghazi. Did the president? If he did, what reasons can he give to justify the decision to keep from sending those forces in? It might even have been the right decision but we will not know that until we have a clearer picture of when he was informed, what he was told, how he stayed informed, and when and why he gave the order to stand down.
It’s unfortunate that this all happened just two months before an election, but the subsequent, attempted cover-up was not the doing of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, or Republicans. The fault is on President Obama, who ultimately answers for the actions of his administrations — both its successes and failures. And this is a failure for which President Obama owes Americans answers.