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LYONS: Benghazi cover-up continues, nearly six months later

Unanswered questions linger on 9/11 attacks

- - Thursday, March 7, 2013

One of the hopeful outcomes of the Senate confirmation hearings for John Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Chuck Hagel to be the secretary of Defense was to gain some concrete answers to the Benghazi tragedy. So far, though, no additional useful information has been released. Further, the testimony of former Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey on Feb. 7 before the Senate Armed Services Committee only raised more questions. The cloud of a cover-up continues.

In that sense, much of the focus by the various congressional committees has been on “who made the changes to the talking points” used by our UN Ambassador Susan Rice on her marathon Sunday interviews in September. Though important, this question diverts attention away from the key issues. For example, what activity was actually being conducted at our Benghazi Special Mission Compound (SMC)? Was it involved in transferring arms to Syrian rebels and al Qaeda-affiliated militias fighting Russia’s key ally in the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad? 

The out-of-control security situation in Eastern Libya including Benghazi was well known. After an assassination attempt on the UK ambassador in June, the Brits closed their Benghazi consulate, as did the International Red Cross. We had a bomb go off at our Benghazi SMC compound on June 6. We know Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens put out a classified message on Aug. 16 stating that the SMC could not be defended and requesting additional security personnel, but he was turned down.   

With the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi, why did Stevens find it necessary to be there on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 when we know he feared for his safety? Having dinner with the Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin is not a compelling reason. Further, on that day, there were tactical warning signs that something was not right. Even the Blue Mountain Security manager of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade that was contracted to provide security for the SMC sensed that “something” was wrong and put out an alert on both his radios and cell phone. We know one of the local policemen who was assigned to guard the SMC was found taking pictures of the inside of the compound, and a memo later found written by Stevens shows he found this to be “troubling.” We know roadblocks were established by the Ansar al-Shariah militia who carried out the assault hours before the attack.

Was Stevens targeted to be killed, or was he supposed to be taken hostage in exchange for the return of the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman? We know his body was taken to the hospital controlled by the militia that carried out the attack. Why? 

The Accountability Review Board appointed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided few answers. It was like having the mafia investigate a crime scene.

Why there was no military response remains an open question. According to testimony given by then-Secretary Panetta, President Obama ordered the Defense Department to respond to the attack with “all available DOD assets.” Implicit within such an order is the authority for cross-border operations (CBO). With that directive, subsequent statements by the secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explaining why military forces could not be deployed in time to assist our ambassador and his staff with their cries for help were simply not credible.

It is understood that a “stand down order” was given. General David Petreaus has stated no such order came from the CIA. As Americans, we don’t leave our people under duress on the battlefield. The American people need to know if such an order was given and by whom.

The chairman’s statement that it would have taken 20 hours to deploy aircraft from Aviano, Italy, to Benghazi is simply not true. We had two squadrons of F-16 fighter aircraft stationed at Aviano. As part of their normal readiness status, designated aircraft are kept on alert to be able to respond instantly to any mission. Even if we allowed 10 minutes to “hot-refuel,” the F-16s could have arrived over Benghazi in 90 minutes. There is no question they would have made a difference. Tanker aircraft could have followed the F-16s, which would have permitted them to remain on station over Benghazi for hours. They may not have been able to save Stevens or Sean Smith, but they certainly could have saved our two Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. They would have carried out attacks on the jihadist that Woods had illuminated with his laser, instead of allowing Woods and Doherty to become the targets.

We also had the Marine fully armed 130-man Force-Recon Team at Sigonella, Italy, which could have been in Benghazi in a few hours. Also, why was no request made to the Turkish and Italian consulates or the UK Benghazi security team to provide assistance?    

Clearly, the cover-up on Benghazi continues. Further, no action has been taken to capture or kill those responsible for the attack. Personnel rescued from the SMC and the CIA annex have been held incommunicado. Congress must find the courage to appoint a Special Prosecutor with appropriate staff and subpoena authority to call in all personnel involved, including those rescued, and make them testify under oath. Nothing less is acceptable.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.