Benghazi & Mogadishu: A Case of Déjà vu

Nineteen years ago, a failure to support US troops in combat led to the resignation of the Secretary of Defense. Will history repeat itself?

Blackhawk Down— the words continue to chill, nineteen years after heavily armed terrorists shot down two US helicopters over Mogadishu, Somalia. On the afternoon of October the 3rd, 1993, three platoons of Army Rangers were cut off and surrounded as they attempted to reach the downed aircraft and rescue survivors. Two Congressional Medals of Honor were earned during the next 48 hours, as members of the 75th Ranger Battalion fought off attacks by thousands of Somali militants. When the smoke cleared, seventeen Rangers and Delta Force Operators were dead, and more than seventy-three were wounded.  

Not all of the casualties were on the ground in Somalia. 

Five thousand miles away, in Washington D.C., Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, found himself in the crosshairs. Months before the Battle of Mogadishu, Secretary of Defense Aspin had turned down the on-scene commander’s requests for M1 tanks and AC-130 Specter gunships, weapons that would have changed the calculus of battle and saved American lives. In his refusal, Aspin had over-ruled then Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, who also pleaded that these weapons were necessary to protect boots on the ground.  Powell was right, and Mogadishu ended the political career of Les Aspin, who was forced to resign as Secretary of Defense two months later.

The attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi may yet prove a mortal wound to the credibility and career of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Like Aspin, Secretary Panetta is faced with the fallout of a military tragedy, and has found it necessary to engage in post-incident damage control. If Aspin’s sins were merely of omission, Panetta’s are far graver, for his refusals for support came not before trouble started, but allegedly in the midst of the fight.   

There are other similarities between the debacle in Mogadishu and the massacre of the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. In both incidents, American forces were vastly out-numbered in hostile urban environments. In both cases American valor and gallantry were conspicuously displayed, and on both occasions political considerations trumped both military requirements and simple common sense.   In Mogadishu, decisions made thousands of miles from the battlefield created the potential for disaster.  In Benghazi, the bad decisions reportedly were made in real time.  It has been alleged that members of the Obama administration watched the drama unfold in the White House Situation Room, inflicting their judgments directly into an unfolding tactical situation—  with mournful results. 

Was the Benghazi Consulate provided with tools adequate for its own defense? Categorically not. In a chilling parallel with Mogadishu, recently leaked cables reveal that Americans on the point of contact were very aware that they were a target ripe for plucking. Classified cables explicitly state fears that the Benghazi consulate could not be protected in an attack. In one secret cable, the Regional Security Officer expressed “concerns with the ability to defend [the] Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.”  On 15 August, less than three weeks before the attack, the consulate's Emergency Action Committee had been briefed “on the location of approximately ten Islamist militia and AQ [Al-Qaeda] training camps within Benghazi.”  The consulate asked the embassy in capital Tripoli for “additional physical security upgrades.”   None were provided, even after the State Department's Senior Security Officer cabled his conclusion that “an attack was likely.”

To complete the tactical picture, Ambassador Stevens sent a three page cable on September 11th-- just hours before the attack-- in it, he detailed “growing problems with security” and complained that the Libyan forces and police posted to guard the consular grounds were “too weak to guarantee the security of the post.”

Nineteen years after Mogadishu, spin is no longer an art, but a science, and the present administration’s attempts to dissemble, blame-shuffle and obfuscate the facts of the Benghazi massacre have proven multi-faceted and persistent. 

Secretary Panetta has since claimed that there wasn’t enough “real-time information” to send military forces to respond. “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,” Panetta told the AP.  

One wonders what amount of information would have been considered sufficient to act. Besides multiple, explicit warnings, there was no shortage of real time information from both the Consulate and the nearby CIA Annex. It is now reported that the assault was observed by a pair of Predator drones launched from Darnah, Libya and Sigonella, Sicily. Both Predators apparently had views of the entire city, and military sources allege that they broadcast real time video directly to the White House, State Department and the National Military Command Center under the Pentagon. Video footage taken by the Consulate’s own security cameras was so detailed that it was able to positively identify one of the ring leaders of the attack, Tunisian militant Ali Ani al Harzi, who was subsequently arrested.    

Battlefield intelligence doesn’t get much better than that.

The Administration’s version of just who murdered Ambassador Stevens has been ever shifting, but the facts from Benghazi have been consistent. In the weeks before the assault, members of the consular staff repeatedly told Washington that they feared an attack. They were ignored. The Regional Security Officer asked for more resources: he was refused. On the night of September 11th, as the consulate burned, Navy SEALs at the CIA annex were reportedly ordered to “Stand Down”, rather than go to the aid of Ambassador Stevens. Ty Woods and Glenn Doherty ignored orders and went anyway, rescuing two Diplomatic Service Protection officers and recovering the body of Sean Smith. After battling their way back to the Annex, rescuers and survivors again came under fire. As the Annex was surrounded, Doherty and Woods were recorded pleading on the radio for air support, and reporting that they had illuminated enemy positions with infrared targeting lasers. Washington did nothing. Mortar rounds dropped around the Annex, and finaly zeroed in. Sometime after 4 a.m. local time, an 82mm round slammed into the roof of the building, killing Doherty and Woods, and gravely wounding Diplomatic Security Officer David Ubben.

Like most Washington scandals, Benghazi comes down to who knew what, and when they knew it. Added to a lengthening list of intelligence reports, indicators, flash message traffic and explicit assessments, the Benghazi State Department emails fully contradict initial statements made by Ambassador Rice and Administration spokesperson Jay Carney that the consulate assault was a mob action. With the President thus far declining to comment or clarify, we are left with an increasingly unflattering picture of an Administration that failed to provide adequate resources to protect a critical diplomatic post, and then coldly refused critical military support as the ambassador and three American citizens became the victims of a premeditated act of terror.    

In 1993, Defense Secretary Les Aspin was forced to resign for inadequately equipping combat forces deployed into Somalia.  In 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta may have intervened directly into the deteriorating tactical situation in Benghazi and refused air support or reinforcements, either of which would have saved American lives. Les Aspin admitted making a mistake; Panetta has not, and has dismissed criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Libya terror attack as, “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

In Mogadishu and Benghazi, American Special Operations Forces showed inspirational gallantry in the face of insurmountable odds. Their sacrifices would not have been necessary if politicians had resisted the temptation to tinker with the requirements of on scene commanders. 

In both cases, Mogadishu and Benghazi, the Administration initially sought to spin failings away from the White House. It is no longer plausible to maintain that the White House was merely incompetent, or in incomplete possession of the facts on the ground. It must now be concluded that the Administration deliberately attempted to cover up the first successful 9/11 anniversary attack carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate.       

In the congressional hearings that followed Mogadishu, Les Aspin stated that he felt armored vehicles and AC-130s were inappropriate for the mission of delivering humanitarian aid. Aspin informed Congress, improbably, that he had not been told that tanks and airplanes were necessary to protect US troops. Aspin went under the bus when President Clinton clarified the matter by saying the White House had not been involved in Aspin’s decision. By December, the Secretary tendered his resignation “for personal reasons”. 

There will be congressional hearings about the Benghazi massacre, and Mr. Panetta will be called to testify. It may not have been his responsibility to see that the Consulate at Benghazi was adequately prepared to meet a terrorist assault -- Secretary of State Clinton has kindly obliged the White House by assuming that responsibility -- but when the American diplomatic mission came under attack in Benghazi, it was Secretary Panetta’s sworn duty defend them. It was his obligation to support his besieged countrymen with the utmost vigor, and to use every tool at his disposal to keep them from harm.  In that, he manifestly failed. For that failure, like Les Aspin before him, Leon Panetta should resign his post-- not for personal reasons, but for an unambiguous dereliction of duty.  


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