Doubts raised on time to reach Benghazi

Report’s critics press questions

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Republican critics say the State Department’s internal report on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, does not address questions about the military’s actions and how Cabinet officials responded to the assault that night and why they misrepresented it afterward.

“They brushed over the fact that no military assistance was rendered by saying there wasn’t enough time,” Frederick W. Rustmann, a former CIA clandestine service officer, said of the report’s investigators.

Several Republican lawmakers also have voiced doubts about the report, which was released last week by an investigative panel called an Accountability Review Board.

“There are many more relevant questions surrounding this tragedy that still need to be answered,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also asking why U.S. military units were not ready to respond.

Although the board’s long-awaited report is “a serious and credible effort,” Mr. McCain said, it “does not provide answers to these questions because it never asked them.”

At a Capitol Hill news conference Friday, Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a separate investigation by the Pentagon.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, also criticized the report, saying it provides no details about the whereabouts and actions of the president and other top officials during the onslaught.

“We know nothing, really, quite frankly, about [the role of] President Obama — before, during and after the attack,” said Mr. Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Led by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the Accountability Review Board probed the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The report states: “There was simply not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.” The attacks unfolded in two waves, several hours apart.

The review board said it “found no evidence of any undue delays in decision-making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders. Quite the contrary.”

But that hasn’t convinced critics of the administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath.

“This was an attack on American soil, and in eight hours, no one thought to scramble a jet? I don’t get that,” Mr. Rustmann said.

“Were they concerned about collateral damage?” he said. “Did the State Department warn them not to offend the natives? That would not be atypical.”

Pentagon officials said in October that there was not enough information about conditions on the ground during the onslaught to commit U.S. assets. But Mr. Rustmann pointed out that fighter jets don’t need targets to make a difference in such a situation.

“They just have to be overhead, flying the flag,” he said, noting that Air Force doctrine recognizes the effectiveness of the mere presence of air power in counterinsurgency conflicts.

Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, in testifying about the report before Congress last week, said no troops were deployed because it “appeared as if the incident was dying down” after the wave of attacks.

Mr. Rustmann said State Department officials “were crossing their fingers and hoping it would go away that everyone would be OK. But they weren’t OK.”

“Our force posture was a disaster,” he said.

Mr. McCain on Friday asked why military units had not been prepared to respond to an emergency in Libya, noting previous attacks on Western interests in Benghazi.

The assault on the consulate “should have been a foreseeable contingency,” he said. “It’s essential the Defense Department conduct a similar independent and comprehensive accountability [investigation].”

Other critics focused on the role of White House staff during the attack.

The report notes that “senior-level interagency discussions continued through the night” as the attack unfolded at two nearby locations. But it gives no details about who took part.

“What did [Mr. Obama] do for the seven hours in question?” Mr. Graham said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, questioned whether investigators had looked high enough into the hierarchy at the State Department.

Ms. Ayotte said the report notes serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi and eastern Libya, which was a hotbed of al Qaeda sympathizers. The board also said that State Department personnel in Libya asked for more security several times, but that Washington officials rejected those requests.

“If that did go up to the chain of command, why weren’t actions taken?” Ms. Ayotte asked.

In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Mr. Burns said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other senior officials had been briefed about the security situation in Libya, but decisions about security were made at the assistant secretary level.

Four State Department officials who are criticized by the report were relieved of their duties last week. Of the three who were identified, each held a position at the assistant secretary or deputy assistant secretary level.

Republicans also have raised concerns about how some top administration officials initially and inaccurately said the attack had grown out of protests over a U.S.-made anti-Islam video.

Starting that Sept. 11, violent protests against the video at U.S. embassies swept the Arab world, killing nearly a dozen people in all.

But using surveillance video recovered from the scene, U.S. officials later established that there had been no protest at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi before the military-style assault by dozens of heavily armed extremists.

“Why did the president himself, as late as Sept. 25, claim that this attack was related to a hateful video?” Mr. Graham said Friday. “And why did he continue to suggest that this was a demonstration spawned by a video that led to a riot, well beyond when that was no longer a plausible story?”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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