What Did Obama Do as Benghazi Attack Unfolded?

There is a growing sense that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was intimately involved in both the decision to deceive the American public about the nature of the Benghazi attack, and in the failure to help Americans as they were under attack. (We already know she failed to provide requested security beforehand.)

The primary responsibility, however–as he himself reminded us, in an attempt to look “responsible” in general sense–lay with President Barack Obama himself. Testimony in January made it clear that President Obama did nothing to respond to the attacks after an initial meeting with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Now come reports that U.S. special operations forces were given the order to stand down as they prepared to go to Benghazi to intervene. A whistleblower, Greg Hicks–deputy to the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in the attacks–is expected to testify to that effect before the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

If Hicks is correct, the question becomes who gave the order, and why. It has long been my theory that the President issued instructions to Panetta, either in the form of an order or simply as general guidance, that U.S. forces were to ensure the damage from Benghazi did not become worse, but were not to intervene directly.

As I wrote in November:

What seems likely, therefore, is that Obama made a decision, after consulting with the NSC and the Secretary of Defense, to move military forces into place but to refrain from intervening unless “contingencies” arose–contingencies evidently not including the death of personnel already under attack. 

The goal was likely to limit casualties, and both diplomatic and political fallout, by containing the attack, not repulsing it.

This is somewhat different from what Obama claimed he did, but not necessarily inconsistent [emphasis added]:

I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure we are securing our personnel and that we are doing whatever we need to. Number two, we are going to investigate exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Number three, find out who did this so we can bring them to justice.

That highlighted phrase, “make sure we are securing our personnel and that we are doing whatever we need to,” is open to a wide range of interpretations. Given the propensity of the Obama administration–far more than any other–to make national security decisions for political reasons, it is likely that Obama told Panetta to limit any further casualties. Or perhaps Panetta–and Clinton–understood without being told explicitly.

Regardless, the American people have a right to know, and a strong desire to know, what the President did. Whatever happens this Wednesday, that is the real question to which answers must be found.