David Ignatius, the liberal Washington Post columnist, has a good column on the Benghazi episode in which he recounts what we know–and, more to the point, what we don’t know–about the official response to the hours-long attack on our consulate and a CIA annex. Ignatius quotes a statement from the CIA making clear that no one at the agency told contractor Tyrone Woods or anyone else not to go to the aid of the embattled diplomats: “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.”
That still leaves open the question of whether anyone else in government told them not to do so, and also, more importantly, of how and why the decision was made not to send more military help to Benghazi beyond a force of eight security personnel from the CIA who were dispatched from Tripoli. Ignatius asks: “Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer.” After all, he notes: “A Joint Special Operations Command team was moved that night to Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any of the other U.S. facilities in danger that night across North Africa. Armed drones could also have been sent.” Yet those assets were not deployed during the seven or so hours that the attack lasted.
One wonders if the decision not to act was taken at Africa Command, the Pentagon, or at the White House. My bet is on the White House. It’s likely that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, known for his attention to details, was the crisis manager in the White House, and if he didn’t inform his boss, the president, of what was going on at the time, he would have been guilty of dereliction of duty–which seems unlikely for such a conscientious bureaucrat. The decision not to act, taken in the heat of the moment and without full information available, was understandable; it might even have been the right decision in hindsight, although this seems less likely. But the White House isn’t really answering these questions. Instead, it seems to be trying to push the whole issue past the election–and the news media, which would have been putting this on page one every day if this had happened on President McCain’s watch, are happy to cooperate by burying this controversy. David Ignatius is an honorable and welcome exception to this trend.