It has taken weeks to establish what happened on the ground during the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi — and longer still to discover who knew what in Washington in the hours during and after the attack.
On the evening of September 11th, 2012, dozens of real-time communications passed between security personnel on the ground in Benghazi and their superiors in Tripoli and Washington. It is now known that during the attack, the State Department’s Operations Center communicated directly with the White House Situation Room, providing minute-by-minute updates of the incident as it was unfolding. These emails also provided on-scene assessments that the assault on the consulate was not a civil disturbance but a coordinated act of terrorism.
On the 11th of September, at 9:40 PM in Benghazi, the assault opened with heavy machine gun and RPG fire, which tore through the front of the ambassador’s residence. Within minutes, security officers at the consulate had communicated with both the American Embassy in Tripoli and the State Department in Washington, DC, advising that they were under attack.
Twenty minutes later, in Washington, the State Department Operations Center communicated by email to the White House Situation Room. It was 4:05 PM. In a Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) message with the subject line “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack,” this email reported that the consulate in Benghazi was under fire and further amplified that “…approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well.”
It was now 10:05 PM in Libya–and the attack was still in progress. A quick reaction force comprised of sixty Libyans and four Americans deployed from the consulate annex and arrived at the ambassador’s compound. They found it ablaze and on the verge of being overrun.
In Washington, the real time reportage continued. At 4:54 PM Washington Time (10:54 PM in Benghazi), the State Department Operations Desk sent a second email titled “Update 1: US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi,” informing the White House that a response team was on site and was attempting to locate missing personnel.
On the ground in Benghazi, the rescuers were able to extract two security officers who had barricaded themselves into the compound’s command center. As flames gutted the residences, they began to search the burning buildings for Ambassador Stevens and Information Specialist Sean Smith. Smith’s body was located and placed into an armored SUV. After slackening, heavy fire again began to rake the consulate. Unable to locate Ambassador Stevens and in serious danger of being cut off, the rescue team prepared to force its way through the circling attackers.
Informing the annex by radio, the rescuers began a perilous journey back across town. Ambushed repeatedly, their armored vehicle survived a grenade attack before it finally limped into the safety of the walled annex some time after 11 o’clock. Having failed in their attempts to ambush the rescuers as they returned to the annex, the attackers now laid siege. For the next six hours the annex would come under withering small arms, RPG, and heavy mortar fire.
In Washington, the State Department sent a third email to the White House. At 6:07PM Washington time, the State Department correctly identified the jihadi organization that had carried out the attack. The email, titled “Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack,” summarized translations of electronic Facebook and Twitter posts by Ansar al Sharia members boasting of the attack. Ominously, the translated posts revealed that the group “has called for an attack on the Embassy in Tripoli.”
It was now after one on the morning in Benghazi. At the consular annex, American security officers had deployed to the roof of the building and were engaging snipers who had enveloped their position from the north and west. At approximately 2AM, mortars began to chuff out of the darkened city. They soon had the annex building registered, and an 82mm mortar round struck the roof, killing navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The same shell severely wounded another American security officer.
By dawn, the terrorists concluded their attack and melted back into the city. The survivors then gathered their wounded and convoyed to the Benghazi airport. They were extracted by two flights and transported to the American Embassy in Tripoli.
In Tripoli, debriefing began at once. On 12 September, the CIA station chief cabled a summary of the incident, clearly stipulating that it was a terrorist assault. But by then, Washington already knew. As evidence, the White House had not only the eyewitness reports of the survivors and State Department emails but video recorded from a drone which overflew the attack. Presumably this information made its way to the White House, and someone up the chain of command was connecting the dots.
What remained now was to inform the American people.
On 14 September, the President attended a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base where the bodies of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were returned to the United States. During his brief remarks, the Commander in Chief failed to mention the words “terror” or “terrorism.” Apparently, the dots had not yet come together.
Five days were spent digesting the information from Benghazi before America’s ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, appeared on five Sunday morning news programs. On September the 16th, Rice stated that the Benghazi consulate was burned during a demonstration caused by an anti-Islam video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which had been posted on YouTube the previous July. This explanation came despite eyewitness accounts which maintained that there was no protest outside the consulate.
But a YouTube posting may have, indeed, been an incitement to violence.
Unmentioned by Ms. Rice, or anyone else in the Administration, was a video released by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri on September 10th, the day before the Benghazi massacre. Zawahiri urged Libyan radicals to attack American targets as revenge for the drone strike death of Libyan born jihadi Abu Yayha al Libi. Within twenty-four hours of Zawahiri’s call to arms, the American Consulate in Benghazi was in flames and four Americans were dead.
Yet Washington’s idée fixe was that the proximate cause of the assault was a two-month-old video rather than the direct command released by al Qaeda’s acknowledged leader.
Presidential spokesperson Jay Carney backed up Ambassador Rice. “Based on information that we — our initial information — we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a preplanned or premeditated attack; that we saw evidence that it was sparked by the reaction to this video.” Carney doubled down on the riot card, insisting that protesters and not terrorists stormed the embassy. “That is what we know,” he said, and his assertion was based on “concrete evidence, not supposition.”
On September 18th, the President appeared on “The Late Show” with Dave Letterman, reasserting that the Benghazi attack was in retaliation for the Innocence of Muslims video. “Extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies,” he explained, “including the one — the consulate in Libya.”
Again, there was no mention that the attack had occurred on the anniversary of 9/11 or that Al Qaeda had called specifically for attacks in Libya.
The White House was now fully committed to the narrative that an anti-American protest had escalated and killed four Americans.
Had the citizens of Benghazi been so incensed that they stormed and burned the American consulate? Was this all because of an anti-Islamic slur? It would seem not.
On September 21st, Libyan protesters surrounded, attacked, and burned the Benghazi headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, the hard-line Islamist militia implicated in the consulate attack. It is hardly credible that Benghazis staged two riots in ten days, one killing an American ambassador and a second burning out the radicals suspected of his murder.
The riot scenario was falling apart. Unable to walk back their previous certainty that the Ambassador had been killed by a mob of protesters, the White House tried shifting blame onto the intelligence community. On the 28th of September, the Director of National Intelligence, Obama appointee James Clapper, released a statement saying that intelligence analysts had now revised their assessments “to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
This, of course, exonerated Ambassador Rice for going out with a not-so-credible story for the Sunday news programs. She got it wrong because the CIA failed to give her correct information.
The risk of this approach was that it might appear a bit cynical, coming as it did seventeen days after the CIA Station Chief in Tripoli first reported, accurately, that the Ambassador and three Americans had been killed by terrorists, not rioters. It also ignored the yet-to-be-revealed emails sent by the State Department, detailing the assault as it happened.
Lobbing the blame over the fence at Langley satisfied no one in politics or the general public. More heads would have to roll. After the CIA fell obediently on its sword, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the next to get shoved. On October 15, as Congress and the American public clambered for answers, Clinton incongruously took responsibility for the debacle at Benghazi, saying that the security of American diplomatic missions was her job.
Even Clinton’s detractors were appalled.
Senator John McCain retorted, “…Responsibility for American security doesn’t lie with the secretary of state. It lies with the president of the United States. It’s either willful deception or a degree of incompetence and failure to understand fundamental facts on the ground.”
Just hours after making her statement taking the rap, Secretary Clinton made another, by departing Washington to attend to pressing matters of State — in Peru.
Still, the Administration seemed to be untroubled. In a truly unfunny moment on Comedy Central, the President told a smiling Jon Stewart, “If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal.” Lest the “Daily Show” comments be placed out of context, in the previous weeks the President told “60 Minutes” that the burning of the American consulate and the murder of the American Ambassador was “a bump in the road.” That a sitting President would trivialize the massacre of an American diplomatic mission is breathtaking.
On September 11th, 2012, Christopher J. Stevens became the first American Ambassador to die at his post since the hapless regime of Jimmy Carter. And, like Carter in 1979, Barrack Obama increasingly finds himself in a world where American foreign policy drifts aimlessly and United States consulates and embassies come under increasingly violent and frequent attack.
The responsibility for the Benghazi consulate attack rests with the Commander in Chief, who knew, or ought to have known that the murder of four American citizens was an act of premeditated terrorism.
It is time to end the spin. It is no longer plausible to maintain that the administration was merely incompetent. It is no longer believable that the White House was not in possession of the facts on the ground. Added to a lengthening list of intelligence reports, indicators, and explicit assessments, the Benghazi emails fully contradict initial statements made by Ambassador Rice and the President. It must now be concluded that the White House deliberately attempted to cover up the first successful 9/11 anniversary attack carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate. That Benghazi happened at all is a disgrace — but to discover that a deliberate attempt was made to conceal the circumstances of the attack adds an insult to the injury suffered by our nation.