I want you to listen to me very carefully… Eli Lake’s intelligence and military sources are iron clad and they’re usually deeper and closer to events than folks expect.
So when Eli Lake reports that “two senior U.S. officials familiar with the details of military planning” spoke to him about the events surrounding the Benghazi attack and said that “the State Department never requested military backup that evening,” Americans would do well to listen very carefully. And if you can listen as carefully as Eli chooses his words (he has great skills at this), you’ll learn much more than the sum of his deftly chosen words.
It’s unlikely any outside military team could have arrived in Benghazi quickly enough to save Ambassador Chris Stevens or his colleague Sean Smith, both of whom died from smoke inhalation after a band of more than 100 men overran the U.S. mission at around 9:30 p.m. that evening and set the buildings inside ablaze.
But military backup may have made a difference at around five the following morning, when a second wave of attackers assaulted the CIA annex where embassy personnel had taken refuge. It was during this second wave of attacks that two ex-SEALs working for the CIA’s security teams—Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods—were killed in a mortar strike.
Normally it would be the job of the U.S. ambassador on location to request a military response. But Stevens likely died in the first two hours of the attack. The responsibility for requesting military backup would then have fallen to the deputy chief of mission at Benghazi or officials at the State Department in Washington.
“The State Department is responsible for assessing security at its diplomatic installations and for requesting support from other government agencies if they need it,” a senior U.S. Defense official said. “There was no request from the Department of State to intervene militarily on the night of the attack.”
The last paragraph is key. It is State’s responsibility to make the request. It’s their mission, their people, their winds of affairs. But no one did. Ambassador Stephens was likely dead very early. The deputy chief of mission at Benghazi clearly did not (perhaps could not) make the request for assistance. And now we’re back to Washington and a groupthink pandemic that paralyzes those who, as decision makers, simply can not become so. But fear of mistakes – or, if you prefer, fear of offending or ruffling a host nation’s representatives and leaders – can immobilize the minds of those who must be quick, agile thinkers and react decisively. Lives often depend on it.
So no one else in the State Department in Washington could make the call to send in forces to stop the bleeding in a situation that could – and did – get out of hand if left alone to fester.
Now, read the next paragraph. Again, carefully.
The president, however, would have the final say as to whether or not to send in the military. By 11 p.m. Benghazi time, 90 minutes after the assault began on the U.S. mission, Obama met with the National Security Council to discuss the attack. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said the president “ordered Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey to begin moving assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies” at that meeting.
While no one at State made the request, Obama had the final say. And we now know that he was aware of events as they were unfolding, including live drone camera video. What did Obama do? Apparently, he gave orders to “begin moving assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies.”
Translation: Re-arrange the deck chairs, be busy, but don’t actually do anything. While I was referring to State directly in the debilitating “groupthink pandemic” in Washington, this is another sure sign – certainly so in hindsight. The groupthink pandemic cost the lives of 2 former Navy SEALs who were, on their own initiative and in defiance of orders to “stand down,” saving the lives of 30 American consulate staff. And they got no assistance. From anyone. No decisions in Washington did anything to save a life in Benghazi.
Again, when Eli Lake reports citing “senior U.S. Defense officials,” listen carefully.