David vs. Goliath

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After two months of misleading and conflicting White House statements explaining the Benghazi fiasco, more questions have been raised than have been answered. No one should be astonished, therefore, that the recent resignation of CIA Director, David Petraeus, a central figure in the controversy, would be any different in its effects. Only days after the presidential election and only days before he was scheduled to testify at Senate and House Intelligence Committees hearings, the revelation of an extramarital affair abruptly forced Petraeus to step down.

The affair was discovered during an FBI investigation that began in June 2012. Mr. Petraeus first learned of the investigation on September 14. Since the affair had ended in July, Petraeus knew there was no blackmail threat. And he would have known there was no security threat — that no classified information had been leaked to his paramour. Thus, on October 29, Petraeus was not surprised when he was told by the FBI that he would not be charged. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he planned to stay at his job, believing that his affair, now known to the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder, would never become known to the public.

Petraeus' adulterous episode had nothing to do with Benghazi — except for the date, September 14. That was the day when, in briefings to both the House and the Senate oversight committees, Mr. Petraeus described the Benghazi attack in a manner consistent with the administration's video-incited mob story. Why would the director of the CIA mislead Congress? As Charles Krauthammer observed, “Here’s a man who knows the administration holds his fate in its hands and he gives testimony completely at variance with what the Secretary of Defense had said the day before, at variance with what you’d heard from the station chief in Tripoli, and with everything that we had heard. Was he influenced by the fact that he knew his fate was held by people in the administration at that time?”

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform the director of national intelligence about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier?

Evidently satisfied that the Obama administration would protect him, Petraeus traveled to Libya, where he conducted his own review of the attack. He told friends that he was looking forward to testifying before Congress. But on the day President Obama was reelected, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him to resign.

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform Clapper about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier? We are expected to believe that, with the election approaching and almost daily reports pointing fingers of blame at the CIA, it was a trivial matter, not worthy of notifying Congress or the president himself. But as soon as the polls closed, it somehow became critically important for Petraeus to resign. The post-election usefulness of Petraeus is now a White House secret, tightly held by Eric Holder and Barack Obama.

President Obama secured his second term by cynically pushing campaign-damaging problems such as the Benghazi investigations past the election (to name a few others: Fast and Furious, the WARN Act lay-off announcements, the Iranian attack on a US drone, the additional flexibility for Vladimir Putin, the Fiscal Cliff, and the debt ceiling). The Benghazi debacle alone could have ruined his chances.

Prior to the Benghazi attack, the White House promoted President Obama as a bin Laden-slaying leader who had captivated the Arab Spring while deftly engineering widespread al Qaeda attrition. With Libyans ingratiated by Obama's conciliatory Middle East policies, Ambassador Stevens could attend diplomatic meetings and openings of cultural centers in Benghazi, unshackled by boorish security details. Everything was running smoothly. As we were told, often, “al Qaeda was on the run."

The attack revealed that nothing was running smoothly in Benghazi. The sanguine, fictional portrayal was abruptly contradicted by the ugly reality of the murders of Stevens and three other Americans — by terrorists. But President Obama and administration officials (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, James Clapper, David Petraeus, and such surrogates as Jay Carney and Susan Rice) blamed unruly demonstrators, spontaneously provoked by a "disgusting and reprehensible" video. This was their story. They stuck with it for eight or more days.

Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

Recall that during the attack and its immediate aftermath, intelligence information flooded the White House. There were reports from the Benghazi mission and the CIA station; real-time audio from the mission to Charlene Lamb at the State Department; real-time video from a Predator drone. All of it indicated organized terrorism. Navy SEAL Ty Woods certainly recognized a terrorist attack when he saw one. And there was a State Department email alert sent at 6:07 pm, less than two and a half hours after the attack began, stating, "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack." The FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated militias. Even Libyan President Mohammed Magarief called it a “pre-planned act of terrorism.”

Accordingly, the White House waspresented with the following possibilities for explaining the attack to the public: (A) planned attack by al Qaeda terrorists, (B) planned attack by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, (C) planned attack by terrorists of unknown affiliation, or (D) we don't know. Rejecting these explanations, the Obama national security team fabricated its own scenario — one of a spontaneous attack by neighborhood protestors. To account for the spontaneity aspect, it was embellished with the anti-Muslim video. No evidence of either the flash mob or the video was contained in any of the reports from Benghazi. Yet the White House went with the video-incensed flash mob story.

The Obama administration's duplicity in garnering credibility for this farce was such that the White House flagrantly altered information reported by Mr. Petraeus. In his testimony to Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings last Friday (November, 16, 2012), Petraeus stated that on September 11, he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack and described it as such in his intelligence assessment. He further said that after providing the assessment to the White House as talking points, his reference to "al Qaeda-affiliated individuals' was replaced with the term ‘extremist organizations.’"

Why did the White House deliberately advance a synthesized story it knew to be false? Some have suggested fear that news of an al Qaeda attack would be viewed as foreign policy failure. But Mr. Obama believes that his "Light Footprint" strategy will prove the best approach to protecting US interests in the chaotic Middle East, dismissing incidents such as the Benghazi attack as "bumps in the road." It is more likely that the frantic clumsiness was driven by the fear that Obama's indecisiveness would be viewed as leadership failure. For example, an attack thought to be executed by protestors could be expected to end before military support would arrive. An attack thought to be executed by organized terrorists would be expected to last throughout the night (as it did, continuing to the CIA safe house — a facility that would be unknown to mere demonstrators), offering no excuse for refusing to send military forces immediately.

Indeed, it may be the cover-up of indecision that lies at the heart of the Washington DC side of Benghazi. The failure of a president motivated more by politics than concern for American lives had to be covered up at all costs. When their video-as-catalyst excuse began to crumble, the White House moved to a "fog of war" excuse that produced "conflicting accounts" from intelligence sources. With the White House shifting blame to the CIA, and the FBI investigating his romantic affair, David Petraeus may have sensed that he was becoming the scapegoat when, on October 26, he stated, through a CIA spokesperson, "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” If not Petraeus, who did decide against sending military assets to rescue the besieged Americans? Only the commander-in-chief has the authority to order military forces into another country.

Ironically, Petraeus appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal— if only by Washington standards.

President Obama has said that he ordered his national security team to do whatever was needed to save American lives. However, what he actually did is another White House secret. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised Republican senators who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in disseminating the White House's anti-Islam video story, Obama said that "they should go after me" instead. But when asked (in the same press conference) what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

During the Intelligence Committee hearings, lawmakers sought to identify the individuals who replaced Petraeus' al Qaeda references, the apparent basis of Susan Rice's vigorous promotion of the video-incensed flash mob story. None in attendance (representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence community, and FBI) could say. The Obama administration, not represented at the hearings, knows. But it's not talking — still another White House secret.

Atthe second presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 17, Obama — incredibly — said he knew on September 11 that it was a terrorist attack, but this was not a secret he had kept for over a month. It was something we all should have known since September 12, after parsing his Rose Garden comments that mentioned, generically, an act of terror.

David Petraeus, with career and marriage regrettably in shambles, is gone. Ironically, he appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal, but only by Washington standards. He will likely be back for future hearings. But, given the deluge of Obama administration blame, excuses, and rebuffs to obscure the truth, use of his tarnished reputation to impugn his testimony would not be beneath White House tactics.

There is no urgency to uncover the truth, beyond that expressed by a handful of Republican Senators and Representatives. Democrats, none of whom have left the wagons encircling the president, excoriate them for “politicizing” the tragedy. And the media, for the most part, has disgracefully shown greater interest in distractions such as the sexual escapades of generals and the so-called Susan Rice attack than in the Benghazi attack and the four murdered Americans.

Future hearings, therefore, are likely to proceed at the same exasperatingly slow pace, but now burdened by White House secrets, under the shadow of plausible deniability. Constant, blatant deceit has been the essence of the White House Benghazi story.

Goliath is winning.




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The Fog of Cover Your Ass

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The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




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