President Obama’s victory in the general election this week does not silence those who have been criticizing his administration’s response to the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The critics, which include of former military and intelligence personnel, conservative commentators and grieving relatives, are set to redouble their efforts, highlighting what they call the administration’s failure to give straight answers to questions about security at the consulate and official actions before, during and after the attack.
OpSec, a military term meaning “operational security,” is a group of former special operations forces and intelligence veterans who campaigned during the election to raise national security issues about Mr. Obama, though as a 501(c) 4 organization it was not allowed to campaign for or against the election of anyone.
Originally formed to protest leaks to the media about the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden last year, the group produced TV ads during the campaign that raised questions about how the administration responded and when real-time word came from Benghazi that the consulate was under attack. The sophisticated, multistage attack by armed extremists with heavy weapons support destroyed the building and killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, another diplomat and two CIA security contractors.
Mr. Rustmann, a 24-year CIA operations veteran who retired from the agency in 1990, noted that, given the intensity of the assault, “what [U.S. personnel on the ground] really, really needed was air support.”
He said the two contractors, both former SEALs, would have been able to “light up” the mortar that eventually killed them from their position on the roof of the CIA building in Benghazi, enabling U.S. aircraft to use precision munitions to take it out.
F-16’s were 10 minutes away in Sicily, he said, “Why didn’t they come to help?”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said there was insufficient information about conditions on the ground to commit military forces, and that other considerations had to be borne in mind before sending fighter jets to strike targets in a country with which the U.S. was not at war.
Although OpSec is a “mostly Republican group,” Mr. Rustmann said, its cause is “absolutely nonpartisan” and would continue despite the election result. “The questions aren’t Republican or Democrat,” he said, “They won’t go away because the election is over.”
National security scholar James Carafano predicted that the State Department and the White House would continue to be asked questions and have their feet held to the fire by congressional critics such as Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and House Oversight Committee chairman, and Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and likely to be the next ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Issa will keep dogging them; Inhofe will keep dogging them,” said Mr. Carafano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
“It’s hard to see how this isn’t a replay of Fast and Furious,” he said, referring to the federal law enforcement operation that let guns get into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels and was the subject of a long-running congressional inquiry by Mr. Issa’s committee. “It will dog them for months.”
Conservative activist and Ronald Reagan-era national security official Frank Gaffney noted that several congressional hearings were scheduled for next week to address questions about the U.S. response during and after the attack.
“Most of them haven’t been answered or they’ve been answered in ways designed to confuse and obscure the truth,” Mr. Gaffney said in an interview.
Mr. Gaffney also lashed out at Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, the veteran diplomat appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to head the State Department’s mandatory inquiry into the incident.
The five-member panel began its work last month but is not expected to report until next year.
Mr. Pickering’s appointment was “as vivid an example as you could ask for of the administration’s efforts to conceal and deflect questions rather than get to the bottom of them,” said Mr. Gaffney.
He said Mr. Pickering “has a conflict of interest because he is a creature of the state department.”
Neither the department nor Mr. Pickering’s office responded immediately to requests for comment, but Mr. Rustmann demonstrated that not all critics of the administration’s response agree.
“[Mr.] Pickering is well-respected at all levels of State and CIA and the rest of the government,” he told The Times, “He’s an honorable man who will do an impartial assessment of the facts.”