Benghazi: Tough Questions and Hard Answers

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Benghazi

Another sad chapter in the Benghazi saga will open on June 26, when retired Army General Carter Ham, the former leader of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), will respond to questions from the House Armed Services Committee. 

General Ham was in command of USAFRICOM during the September 11th terrorist attack that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and State Department Communications Specialist Sean Smith dead in the fire-ravaged Benghazi Consulate. Also killed that night in Benghazi were former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who, after a heroic but unsuccessful attempt to rescue the Ambassador, died fighting on the rooftop of a besieged CIA annex three miles across town. 

For almost seven hours, Al Qaeda linked terrorists flayed the CIA Annex with rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, and mortars. Woods and Doherty were killed when an 82mm mortar shell slammed into the roof of the annex building. Two other American security officers were critically injured.

Could the Al Qaeda attack on the Benghazi consulate have been prevented? Probably not. Certainly not by the State Department, whose repeated failures to address Ambassador Stevens’ security concerns turned the consulate into a dangerously soft target—low hanging fruit that was eventually irresistible to America’s enemies.

Warnings that Benghazi might be attacked came not only from Ambassador Stevens but from Al Qaeda itself. One day prior to the Benghazi attack on September 10th, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri released a video urging Islamists to strike American targets in Libya to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Libyan member of the terror group. 

Twenty-four hours later, the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, Al Qaeda’s Libyan franchise, launched the first successful 9/11 anniversary attack, killing four American citizens.

Like most Washington scandals, Benghazi comes down to who knew what and when they knew it. Thus far, the White House and State Department have done a remarkable job keeping their skirts clean. It is not even known if President Obama even set foot in the White House’s Situation Room while the American Consulate was under attack—adding to a growing impression of a disconnected, hands-off presidency. 

Secretary Clinton hardly gave a better account of herself when she barked in Senate testimony, “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided to go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?!” These remarks will likely haunt the rest of her political life. 

Where the politicians were before and during the Benghazi assault may never be known, but it is certain that General Carter Ham was at his post. During the initial assault on the Consulate, and the night-long battle that followed, a pair of U.S. Predator drones orbited above Benghazi, beaming back real-time video. General Ham was perfectly informed of the situation, even if his superiors were not. 

The Department of State may have failed to provide adequate security for the Benghazi consulate, but once the attack started, it was the responsibility of the U.S. military, AFRICOM, and General Ham to see that Americans on the ground were given timely and adequate military support.

The drones had an almost uninterrupted view of the assault on both the consulate and the annex. Both incidents unfolded over the space of almost seven hours, enough time for aircraft to fly to and from the NATO air base at Sigonella, Sicily, where not only Predator drones and fighter aircraft were based but also a quick reaction force of Navy SEALs. Special Operation Forces were also on standby in Tripoli, Libya.

Help was available. Help could have been sent. Should it have been?

It turns out, at least for the U.S. military, there could be no discretion in the matter. General Ham and the forces at his disposal were duty-bound to support the Americans under attack in Benghazi.

The requirement, both morally, militarily, and legally, is precisely spelled out in a document called the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ. The UCMJ is not only the law-book for the U.S. Military, it also lists the duties incumbent on the officers and fighting men and women of all America’s uniformed services.

Article 99 is one of several parts of the UCMJ that spell out the duties of both commanders and troops while in combat. Part 9 of article 99 states that any service member, “Who does not afford all practicable relief and assistance to any troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces belonging to the United States or their allies when engaged in battle” to be guilty of an offense. The UCMJ stipulates that charges should be brought in cases where an individual fails “to afford all practicable relief and assistance” whether by neglect or willfully failing to “do the utmost to perform that duty”.

Is this merely a legal quibble? For the UCMJ, failure to provide support is listed in a section entitled “Misconduct before the enemy"; the penalty for such failure is to be “punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” Along with cowardice, failure to provide all practicable relief to U.S. combatants is a capital offense.

But did Article 99 apply to General Ham? Was a terrorist attack on an embassy to be considered combat with enemy forces—or something else? Again, the UCMJ is unambiguous. Subpart b of Article 99 states that enemies include, “...any hostile body that our forces may be opposing, such as a rebellious mob or a band of renegades, and includes civilians as well as members of military organizations…” 

Clearly, the UCMJ’s definition of enemy combatants covers the terrorists who assaulted the Consulate and CIA Annex. Was General Ham lawfully required to render support to Woods and Doherty? Where Doherty and Woods classified as members of the U.S. Armed Forces? 

Again, the UCMJ is clear. Article 2 of the UCMJ states who is covered by the code; it includes: “Members of a regular component of the armed forces, Retired members of a regular component of the armed forces who are entitled to pay.” Both Doherty and Woods were former SEAL Team members, both were retired, and Woods was being paid by the Department of Defense.

Benghazi was combat. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were American combatants, and the commander of USAFRICOM had it in his power to support them. 

On September 11th, 2012, Christopher J. Stevens became the first American Ambassador to die at his post since the hapless regime of Jimmy Carter. Whether or not General Ham did his duty as a subordinate commander, the responsibility for the Benghazi consulate attack, and the floundering response to it, ultimately rests with the Commander in Chief, Barack Obama.

Regardless of what orders did, or did not, come from Washington, the duty of a subordinate military commander in Benghazi was unambiguous. It was General Ham’s explicit duty to support Americans under fire in Benghazi. He did not, and now the General should answer for it, at his peril.

On June 26th, General Ham will face some tough questions from the House Armed Services Committee. America deserves some straight answers.


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