As House investigators gear up for a new probe of Benghazi, one question they’ll likely pursue is what President Obama did or didn’t do on the night that the terrorist attack was unfolding 20 months ago.
While much attention has focused on Susan E. Rice’s “talking points” that blamed the Benghazi attack on an anti-Islam video, the White House has largely ducked questions about Mr. Obama’s actions during the crucial hours when U.S. officials were debating how, or whether, to rescue the Americans under attack at U.S. consulate in Libya.
Four U.S. citizens died, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
The White House said Wednesday it has provided “remarkable cooperation” on seven previous congressional probes into Benghazi. And an Obama aide criticized a Republican fundraising email that mentioned the new probe, saying it’s evidence of a partisan witch hunt.
“I think that tells you just about all you need to know when it comes to assessing the political motivations of those who are leading the effort to form this committee,” said White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest.
But questions about Mr. Obama’s command decisions gained fresh prominence when a former White House national security aide, Tommy Vietor, said in a TV interview last week that Mr. Obama was not in the White House Situation Room around 10 p.m. on the night of the attack, when the president spoke by phone to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
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Mr. Vietor, who was in the Situation Room, said the president was in the White House residence at the time of the call.
The White House has not specified what transpired in the Obama-Clinton discussion, which shortly preceded a statement from Mrs. Clinton that cited an anti-Islam video that turned out to have nothing to do with the terrorist attack.
The Situation Room, equipped with secure videoconferencing screens and the technology to monitor world events around the clock, is the White House’s nerve center in a national security crisis. The public has seen glimpses of the secret facility only rarely, as when the White House released a photo in 2011 of the president, Mrs. Clinton and other top advisers monitoring in real time the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Mr. Vietor’s comments have prompted some Republican senators to call on Mr. Obama to describe where he was and what he did on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.
“The American people still do not have an accounting of your activities during the attack. Mr. President, can you now confirm that Mr. Vietor’s account of your absence in the White House Situation Room is accurate?” said a letter from Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
A former Secret Service agent said it would have been unusual for the commander-in-chief not to be in the Situation Room during such a high-level crisis.
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“If he was in the residence and not in the Situation Room, that’s a really big problem,” said Dan Bongino, who worked 12 years as an agent, including under Mr. Obama.
“The Situation Room has the communications channels set up the way it is to be a focal point of the ability to conduct an operation. If you’re not there, you’re out of it. You can have advisers come back and forth [to the residence], but think about what that says about the president. We’re talking about walking 150 yards from the residence to the ‘Sit Room’ to go make a decision. It speaks volumes about a commander-in-chief who was not being a chief or a commander,” Mr. Bongino said.
Mr. Bongino, who left the Secret Service in 2011, wrote a book last year about his experience in which he said Mr. Obama would have had “instantaneous access” to information about the Benghazi attack as it was happening.
He is also a Republican candidate for Congress this year in Maryland’s Sixth District.
White House aides have said the president’s advisers kept him updated throughout the evening of the Benghazi attack, which began around 3:40 p.m. Eastern time. Press Secretary Jay Carney has said Mr. Obama learned of the attack from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that afternoon, in a meeting that began at 5 p.m., and he was “routinely updated” throughout the evening by his national security team.
Mr. Carney has said the president told Mr. Panetta “to do everything possible to ensure that whatever assistance can be provided was provided, and that action was taken to secure our facilities in the region and around the world.”
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to Congress last year that they spoke to Mr. Obama only once that night about the attack, in the 5 p.m. meeting that lasted about 30 minutes.
The president also spoke by phone that night to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a call that reportedly began around 6:30 p.m. and lasted nearly an hour.
The White House later released a photo taken of the president, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and top aides in the Oval Office after the call with Mr. Netanyahu.
At 6:07 p.m., the State Department’s Operations Center sent an email to the White House, Pentagon, FBI and other government agencies that said Ansar al-Sharia was claiming credit for the attack.
Around 7 p.m. Washington time, while Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden apparently were still on the phone with Mr. Netanyahu, the first of two unmanned U.S. predator drones was diverted to Benghazi. White House officials haven’t said what actions, if any, the president took as a result of that surveillance.
About 10 p.m., Mrs. Clinton issued a statement confirming that one State Department official had been killed in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Her statement made reference to the anti-Muslim video.
The Pentagon’s timeline of its response to Benghazi showed that the U.S. African Command was hamstrung by not having its own special operations quick-reaction force, and that it took nearly 20 hours to position borrowed forces, by which time the crisis had ended.
A CIA timeline showed that it took 3.5 hours after the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli learned of the attack to charter two aircraft and take off with a rescue force for the 50-minute flight to Benghazi.