Congress generally has given the Pentagon a pass on failing to come to the aid of Americans in Benghazi — that is until now.
Six Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, have issued a blistering criticism of Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who as Joint Chiefs chairman is the nation’s highest-ranking officer and chief military adviser to President Obama.
Under the heading “Failures in leadership — General Dempsey,” the senators singled out the four-star officer for not having an emergency plan in place in al Qaeda-infiltrated North Africa, including Benghazi, Libya.
No plan meant there were no U.S. forces close enough to arrive in time to help after terrorists invaded the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi at 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, and then attacked a nearby CIA annex holding spies, diplomats and security personnel.
The annex personnel were rescued by a team from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and left Benghazi around 10 a.m. Sept. 12. The first U.S. military reinforcements — a Marine Corps Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team — did not arrive in the country until 9 p.m., 11 hours after the attack.
“The tenure of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has been marked by what we view as significant deficiencies in command,” the six wrote in an addendum to the committee’s Jan. 15 report on Benghazi. “From Syria to Benghazi, there has been either a profound inability or clear unwillingness to identify and prevent problems before they arise. Given the known operating environment in Benghazi, much less North Africa, a strong military leader would have ensured there was a viable plan in place to rescue Americans should the need arise.”
Gen. Dempsey and Leon E. Panetta, defense secretary at the time of the attack, have testified that time and distance prevented troops from arriving during the fighting. The six Republicans dismissed that reasoning.
“General Dempsey’s attempts to excuse inaction by claiming that forces were not deployed because they would not have gotten there in time does not pass the common sense test,” they wrote. “No one knew when the attacks against our facilities in Benghazi would end, or how aggressive the attacks would be. That is the whole point of a pre-established emergency rescue plan — so that the length of the attack alone does not dictate the rescue or survival of Americans.”
In addition to Mr. Chambliss, the criticism came from Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, James E. Risch of Idaho, Daniel Coats of Indiana, Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. The committee’s other Republican, Susan M. Collins of Maine, did not sign on.
Gen. Dempsey’s spokesman defended the chairman’s actions.
“The Chairman has testified before Congress multiple times on the military response to the attacks in Benghazi,” said Air Force Col. Edward Thomas. “Our forces were ordered to respond upon notification of the attack. But the fact remains, as we have repeatedly indicated, that U.S. military forces could not have arrived in time to mount a rescue of those Americans who were killed and injured that night.”
He added: “We began moving assets that could have been used for protection of our personnel and facilities, for medical evacuation, or for hostage rescue. Those assets continued to move until it was clear that they were no longer needed.”
Killed in the attacks were U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, then in charge of U.S. Africa Command, first informed Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta at the Pentagon of the attack. Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey then went to the White House for a scheduled meeting with President Obama on another matter. They returned to the Pentagon and conferred again with Gen. Ham.
The Senate intelligence committee report said Gen. Ham was unaware that the CIA operated an annex in Benghazi.
Before 2 a.m. Benghazi time Sept. 12, Mr. Panetta ordered two Marine FAST teams to deploy from Rota, Spain. One arrived in Tripoli that night long after the siege ended. The second team took 96 hours to get ready.
Since then, the Pentagon has positioned one of those FAST teams closer to North Africa, on the island of Crete.
Mr. Panetta also deployed two special operations teams, one in Europe and one in the United States. They did not arrive in a staging area in Sigonella, Italy, until 10 hours after the crisis ended.
Gen. Dempsey has said no combat aircraft were available in time to provide help.
In closed-door testimony before the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Gen. Dempsey said: “I didn’t receive any specific reports of imminent threats to U.S. personnel or facilities in Benghazi.”
The panel released a declassified version of his October testimony last week.
Gen. Dempsey quoted the State Department’s accountability review that, he said, “concluded that the interagency response was timely and appropriate but there was simply not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
The congressman said he could not understand why the emergency special operations team in Croatia did not take off for Italy until 4:17 p.m. on Sept. 12, 16 hours after Mr. Panetta gave the order and six hours after the last Americans were evacuated from Benghazi to Tripoli.
“They were in a training exercise,” Gen. Dempsey replied.