Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.
Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."
But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.
At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."
It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"
Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.
Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.
Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.
The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."
Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.
In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.
Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.
Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.
In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?
The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.
We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.
Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.