The Obama administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions.

by David Ignatius

October 30, 2012

The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi has become a political football in the presidential campaign, with all the grandstanding and misinformation that entails. But Fox News has raised questions about the attack that deserve a clearer answer from the Obama administration.

Fox’s Jennifer Griffin reported Friday that CIA officers in Benghazi had been told to “stand down” when they wanted to deploy from their base at the annex to repel the attack on the consulate, about a mile away. Fox also reported that the officers requested military support when the annex came under fire that night but that their request had been denied.

The Benghazi tragedy was amplified by Charles Woods, the father of slain CIA contractor Tyrone Woods. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity that White House officials who didn’t authorize military strikes to save the embattled CIA annex were “cowards” and “are guilty of murdering my son.”

The Fox “stand down” story prompted a strong rebuttal from the CIA: “We can say with confidence that the agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.”

So what did happen on the night of Sept. 11, when Woods, Ambassador Christopher Stevens and two others were killed? The best way to establish the facts would be a detailed, unclassified timeline of events; officials say that they are preparing one and that it may be released this week. That’s a must, even in the campaign’s volatile final week. In the meantime, here’s a summary of some of the issues that need to be clarified.

First, on the question of whether Woods and others were made to wait when they asked permission to move out immediately to try to rescue those at the consulate. The answer seems to be yes, but not for very long. There was a brief, initial delay — two people said it was about 20 minutes — before Woods was allowed to leave. One official said that Woods and at least one other CIA colleague were “in the car revving the engine,” waiting for permission to go. Woods died about six hours later, after he returned to the annex.

The main reason for the delay, several sources said, was that CIA officials were making urgent contact with a Libyan militia, known as the February 17 Brigade, which was the closest thing to an organized security force in Benghazi. The United States depends on local security to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities everywhere, and officials wanted to coordinate any response to the consulate attack. After this delay, Woods and his colleague proceeded to the consulate.

Here’s my question: Was it wise to depend on a Libyan militia that clearly wasn’t up to the job? Could it have made a difference for those under attack at the consulate if Woods had moved out as soon as he was, in one official’s words, “saddled and ready”?

Second, why didn’t the United States send military assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer. The CIA did dispatch a quick-reaction force that night from Tripoli, with about eight people, but it had trouble at first reaching the compound. One of its members, Glen Doherty, died along with Woods when a mortar hit the roof of the annex about 4 a.m.

What more could have been done? The Pentagon’s answer is that there wasn’t enough time to deploy forces that could have saved American lives. George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told me on Wednesday, responding to an initial online version of this column: “Within a few hours, Secretary Panetta ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed.”

Administration officials argue that the military, in real life, isn’t a “911” rescue number. Two Joint Special Operations Command teams were moving that night to the Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any other U.S. facility in danger across North Africa. But officials say that the teams didn’t arrive in Sicily until Sept. 12, many hours after the Benghazi attack was over.

As for armed drones or AC-130 Spectre gunships, officials say that they were too far away to help. Unclassified data put the range of Predator and Reaper armed drones at 770 miles and 1,150 miles, respectively. The nearest known base for armed drones, in Djibouti, is about 1,700 miles from Benghazi. Regarding the Spectre gunships, Little said: “No AC-130 was within a continent’s range of Benghazi.”

If these rebuttals are accurate, that raises another troubling question: At a time when al-Qaeda was strengthening its presence in Libya and across North Africa, why didn’t the United States have more military hardware nearby?

Looking back, it may indeed have been wise not to bomb targets in Libya that night. Given the uproar in the Arab world, this might have been the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a burning fire. But the anguish of Woods’s father is understandable: His son’s life might have been saved by a more aggressive response, had one been possible. The Obama administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions.

A final, obvious point: The “fog of battle” that night was dense not just in Benghazi but also in Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere. As one official concedes, “The reports were all over the map that night, and there was a lot of confusion.” America needed better intelligence. That’s the toughest problem to address, but the most important.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the Washington PostPartisan blog. 

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