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.”
The matter of what was said at the White House on Sept. 11 is important. For two weeks after the attacks, the White House told the American public that the killings of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans resulted from spontaneous protests over a U.S.-made anti-Muslim video.
Republicans charge that narrative was a cover story amid Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. The White House, they say, had ample evidence within hours that al Qaeda-linked terrorists carried out a planned attack.
If the nation’s most senior military leaders told Mr. Obama on Sept. 11 that the attackers were terrorists, not demonstrators, it would strongly bolster the Republican case.
But a review of hearing transcripts shows Republicans did not nail down the timeline.
Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham
Gen. Ham, who then led Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, provided his most extensive account of his actions Sept. 11 to the House Armed Services subcommittee in June.
Gen. Ham happened to be at the Pentagon that day. When notified of the attack, he headed to Gen. Dempsey’s office, and the two went to inform Mr. Panetta, the defense secretary.
Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta then went to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting with the president. They returned to the Pentagon and again huddled with Gen. Ham to discuss options for aiding Americans in Benghazi.
Gen. Ham told the House subcommittee that “to me, it started to become clear pretty quickly that this was certainly a terrorist attack and not just something sporadic.”
He testified that he told Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta of his view and “we were pretty clear on, pretty shortly thereafter, the kind of the nature of the attack.”
He said his first discussions with the two “were less about the origins of the attack” and more on Stevens’ whereabouts.
But lawmakers did not ask Gen. Ham to define “pretty quickly” and “pretty shortly.”
No one asked if the generals reached that conclusion before they went to the White House or after they returned.
When committee Republicans released their Benghazi report Feb. 11, the issue of what Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta told the president that day was described this way:
“Upon arrival, the two discussed the attack with the president for 15 to 30 minutes, at which time they presumably shared all that was known about the unfolding events,” the report states.
The key word is “presumably.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey
In October, four months after Gen. Ham testified, Gen. Dempsey appeared before the House subcommittee for one hour and 17 minutes.
No congressman asked him precisely when Gen. Ham told him that the incident was a terrorist attack and when he agreed with that assessment.
Nor did any lawmaker ask the four-star general what he told Mr. Obama at the White House that day or whether he told the president that terrorists or demonstrators had attacked the diplomatic mission. By that time, the attack on the CIA annex had not begun.
“Soon after I received the initial reports of the Benghazi attack, I discussed the situation with the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and with President Obama in a meeting that we had already scheduled that day on another topic,” Gen. Dempsey said in the prepared statement part of his testimony.
In February 2013, Gen. Dempsey appeared before the Senate Committee on Armed Services for a hearing devoted to Benghazi.
Gen. Dempsey testified that when he met with the president Sept. 11, a short time after he had been briefed by Gen. Ham at the Pentagon, he did not know the origin of the attack. It could have been a planned terrorist attack or an attack by demonstrators, he said.
“At that point I didn’t know,” he testified of his meeting with the president.
“It could have been either one, couldn’t it?” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
“That’s right,” the general said.
Leon M. Panetta
Mr. Panetta also testified at the Senate committee hearing in February 2013.
He said he did not know at first what was going on that day, but “when I later found out that you had [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars and there was an attack on that second facility, there was no question in my mind it was a terrorist attack.”
This timeline would mean Mr. Panetta had not concluded it was a terrorist attack when he met with Mr. Obama on Sept. 11.
Gen. Ham’s testimony was months away, so Mr. Panetta was not questioned about the general’s Day One assessment.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, about meeting with the president that day, Mr. Panetta testified: “I talked to him on Sept. 11 with regards to the fact that we were aware this attack was taking place.” He did not specify the attackers as demonstrators or terrorists.
“I think the biggest problem that night, senator, was that nobody knew really what was going on there,” he said.
Mr. Panetta made a point of disclosing that, when he appeared before the Senate committee in a private session on Syria three days after the attacks — Sept. 14, 2012 — “I said it was a terrorist attack.” After his private briefing, several senators present told reporters there was no doubt the Benghazi incident was a terrorist assault, based on the weapons used.
That was the Friday before Susan E. Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went on the Sunday TV talk shows to give the public the administration’s assessment: The attack resulted from spontaneous demonstrations.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she said: “Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.”
The first administration official to publicly describe the attack accurately was Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He did so in testimony to a Senate committee Sept. 19, three days after Ms. Rice’s TV appearances.
Mr. Panetta publicly declared Benghazi a terrorist attack at a Pentagon press conference Sept. 28.
Various government reports on Benghazi did not address the question of what Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey told the president Sept. 11 as the first attack on the diplomatic mission subsided. They include the State Department’s accountability review board and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s bipartisan report of Jan. 15, 2013.
A Republican interim report from four House committee chairmen mentioned the White House meeting but provided no details.
Gen. Ham was interviewed by staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a classified session in March. The committee has not released details.
Citing Gen. Ham’s testimony, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly asked Mr. Obama repeatedly during an interview that aired Super Bowl Sunday whether Mr. Panetta described the incident in Benghazi as an attack or a terrorist attack during the Sept. 11 meeting at the White House.
Mr. Obama: What he told me was, there was an attack on our compound.
Mr. O’Reilly: He didn’t use the word “terror?”
Mr. Obama: In the heat of the moment, Bill, what folks are focused on is what’s happening on the ground. Do we have eyes on it? How can we make sure our folks are safe?
Mr. O’Reilly: Did he tell you it was a terror attack?
Mr. Obama: What he said to me was, “We’ve got an attack on our compound. We don’t know yet who’s doing it.” Understand by definition, Bill, when somebody is attacking our compound, that’s an act of terror.
Mr. Obama continued to cite an American-made anti-Muslim video as the cause of the attack for at least two weeks after it happened.
There was no demonstration that day at the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Neither the mission nor the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported any demonstrations outside the compounds. Surveillance video showed no crowd outside until 20 or so terrorists armed with rocket-propelled grenades broke down the gate at 9:42 p.m.