Unasked questions fog facts on Benghazi

Pentagon sensed terrorism quickly

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Republican lawmakers have failed to pin down senior military officials on how they characterized the Benghazi attack to the White House and President Obama on Sept. 11, 2012, the day terrorists stormed a U.S. diplomatic mission and bombed a CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city.

The issue gained importance in January when Republican members of the House Committee on Armed Services released former top-secret transcripts of senior officials testifying on the military’s response to Benghazi.

For the first time, it was disclosed that retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, then head of U.S. Africa Command, testified that he had told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, that day that Americans in Benghazi were under attack by terrorists, not demonstrators. He said both men agreed.

The Jan. 13 disclosure opened another avenue of inquiry on Benghazi. It also spurred reports among conservative media that the nation’s two most senior military leaders immediately knew the assault was a terrorist attack and must have told the president that day.

A White House reporter told presidential spokesman Jay Carney that the House transcripts showed that Gens. Ham and Dempsey and Mr. Panetta “believed within minutes of the attack” that it was “probably a terror attack.”

But a review of Gen. Ham’s June 26 testimony shows he never was asked precisely when he came to that conclusion. Was it when he met with Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey before they went to the White House and spoke with the president? Or was it after they returned to the Pentagon a short time later and the three gained more information as the CIA annex attack began? A precise answer is not in the transcripts.

In addition, House Armed Services Committee members did not ask Gen. Dempsey, when he appeared, exactly how he characterized the attack to the president in light of Gen. Ham’s testimony.

Mr. Panetta did not testify before Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which took the testimony in closed sessions last year from Gens. Dempsey and Ham, and other military leaders.

House Armed Services Committee spokesman Claude Chafin defended Republican committee members’ work.

“I think it is important to reinforce what this briefing series sought to do,” Mr. Chafin said. “It was not to answer every question about Benghazi, or even every question under DOD’s jurisdiction. It was to look at the actions of the operational chain of command from the lieutenant colonel on the ground in Libya all the way up to Gen. Dempsey.

“In part, we wanted to better understand the rationale behind a military posture that was clearly inadequate, given the instability in the region in the run-up to the attack. Once we had been briefed by the chain of command, we felt we had enough information to reach some interim conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other questions and other witnesses to hear from — including Panetta.”

When Republicans released the transcripts, Mr. Carney went on the attack.

“So I think there has been a lot of reporting on this, and there has been a lot of inaccurate reporting on it, generally speaking, not just this particular case of House Republicans selectively releasing more testimony to outlets so that they can use it for political purposes,” the White House spokesman said.

Mr. Chafin said Republicans did no such thing.

“We publicly released all of the testimony, which DOD declassified with the full knowledge of what we were going to do with it, at one time, without any editorial comment,” he said. “We believe that these transcripts speak for themselves.”

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