- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Obama administration’s handling of the deadly September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, faces another congressional grilling when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testifies Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Nearly five months after the terrorist attack killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at a U.S. diplomatic post in the restive Libyan city, questions remain about the attack and the administration’s shifting explanations for what happened and why.

Beyond pointing at a possible role played by the nebulous grouping of North African Islamists known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), senior Obama administration officials have yet to present a clear narrative of who planned and carried out the attack, critics contend. And if the myriad of congressional hearings that have already been held are any indication, Mr. Panetta’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee is unlikely to provide one.

Apart from identifying and apprehending those behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, several questions remain unanswered, including:

• What happened to Stevens between being separated from his security detail during the attack and turning up dead several hours later at a Benghazi hospital?

• Who was watching the live-streaming feed of images from drones over the area of attack that night?

• Which officials from the White House and the Pentagon were in the decision chain about how the U.S. military should respond?

• Was President Obama involved in that decision chain in real time?

Who did it?

When it comes to the big questions of who did it and how the United States should retaliate, Mr. Panetta will likely respond the same way the White House has: that the FBI and Libyan authorities are conducting an investigation and that more time is needed to figure out what happened.

Top U.S. defense officials have offered only ambiguous speculation on who was behind the Benghazi attack. U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the military’s Africa Command, recently told the McClatchy news service: “I believe there are individuals who participated in the attacks in Benghazi who had at least some affiliation with AQIM. I don’t interpret from that that this was AQIM-directed or even an AQIM-inspired or -supported effort. But the connection is there. And I think that what I am wrestling with is: What is the connection with all these various individuals or groups?”

One open question is whether members on the Armed Services Committee will actually bring enough focus to the hearing to pressure Mr. Panetta for such an assessment. If the performance lawmakers gave during former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hearings two weeks ago are any indication, they will not.

A heated highlight of Mrs. Clinton’s testimony came when Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, pressured the former secretary of state to explain why the Obama administration had originally tied the Benghazi attack to an anti-Islam video rather than pinning it outright on al Qaeda.

An early December report by The Wall Street Journal outlined how the words “al Qaeda” were removed from talking points given to senior administration officials after an intense debate among intelligence officials. Some officials thought the claim of an al Qaeda link had not come from a reliable source. Others felt that including references to al Qaeda would unnecessarily tip suspected members of the organization that they were being monitored.

“What difference, at this point, does it make?” declared Mrs. Clinton during her Jan. 23 testimony, her hands chopping the air at the witness table in frustration.

Although the questioning moved on to other topics, many critics of the administration noted that the shifting explanations of Benghazi came just as President Obama’s re-election campaign was touting the president’s success in “decimating” the leadership of al Qaeda in his race against GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Political ordeal

It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s hearing will feature similar theatrics by Mr. Panetta, whose trip to Capitol Hill appears driven as much by politics at this point as any desire for answers.

Mr. Panetta’s testimony arrives at a time of deep political contention over the nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to be his successor. Sen. Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican, was intensely critical of Mr. Hagel during a confirmation hearing last week, and has said he would do everything in his power to block the nomination until the Armed Services Committee heard from Mr. Panetta about Benghazi.

A planned Thursday vote on Mr. Hagel’s nomination to succeed Mr. Panetta was postponed late Wednesday by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who said more information was needed on the nominee.

Mr. Graham can be expected to deliver some of the most severe scrutiny of Mr. Panetta on Thursday, specifically on the question of why no U.S. armed forces were able to mobilize to rescue the four Americans who ended up dead in Benghazi. Mr. Graham and five other Republicans expressed collective vexation over a response that Mr. Panetta provided to that question in a November letter to Congress.

“Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta’s letter only confirms what we already knew — that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya,” the senators said at the time.

“The letter fails to address the most important question — why not?” they added. “This question is all the more puzzling considering that the attack in Benghazi occurred on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history — a day when we know that our enemies around the world are plotting and planning to hit us again.”

A December report prepared by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee also homed in on the question, highlighting how the military’s Africa Command lacked what’s known as a “commanders in-extremis force” — a small contingent of special-operations troops who could be deployed on short notice.

Military officials have since said that AFRICOM, whose area of command includes Benghazi, did have access to such a force under an agreement with the military’s European Command. But, the force was conducting training in Central Europe on Sept. 11. Officials have also said Africa Command subsequently got its own in-extremis force on Oct. 1 — three weeks after the attack.

Critics such as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have asked why fighter jets were not deployed from southern Europe to provide air support during the Benghazi assault. Military officials have acknowledged that surveillance drones were deployed over the site.

Thursday’s hearing may find senators revisiting unanswered questions about the drones. A senior official told The Washington Times in December that streaming images from the aircraft were monitored at a Defense Department facility, but not piped directly into the White House.

Recent months have seen the security situation in Benghazi deteriorate even further, complicating U.S. efforts to investigate the attack at the scene. At least two dozen security officers, including Benghazi’s police chief, have been killed over the past year. The head of the criminal investigative division, who was investigating the police chief’s death, was abducted and is still missing.

Staff writers Shaun Waterman and Ashish Sen contributed to this report.

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